Dr Laura Thomas was employed by the Wales Cancer Research Centre as a Research Associate in 2018. We caught up with her to find out more about her work now she has secured support from the ACCELERATE programme through its Clinical Innovation Accelerator (CIA), in partnership with Cellesce Ltd towards a £400k project to further develop her research.
The Inherited Tumour Syndromes Research Group, based in the Cancer Genetics Centre at Cardiff University, looks into improving outcomes for patients with a rare predisposition to develop bowel cancer. Patients with the familial polyposis syndromes; “FAP” and “MAP”, have a genetic mutation, which means that they develop a large number of small growths in their bowels, called polyps. Some of these are likely to become cancerous. In fact, their lifetime risk of developing bowel cancer is nearly 100%.
Patients with these mutations will often have their large intestine removed in their late teens in order to avoid the likelihood of developing bowel cancer. Removing the large intestine comes with lifelong health complications. These patients will remain at high risk of developing cancer in other areas of their bowel which is more difficult to treat with surgery. Laura’s work is focussing on ways in which we can prevent or treat polyps in this high-risk group of patients and in those with sporadic bowel cancers, for which these genetic syndromes serve as good models.
Laura said, “As a pre-clinical researcher I have the rare privilege of being able to meet the patients whose tissues we work with. It’s fascinating to see the clinical side of things as I’m invited to endoscopies to watch a biopsy being taken for diagnosis. We are given a small part of the biopsy to take back to the lab to perform our research.”
Tissues donated by patients are processed in the lab and the resulting cells cultured in dishes, where they grow into three-dimensional (3D) balls of cells that closely replicate the structure and biology of the original tissue. They are called organoids, or “mini-guts”. In this way, a small amount of biopsy material can be expanded manually, to provide sufficient copies for small-scale experimentation. The goal is to use this model, as an accurate representation of what is happening in the body, to study the genes that are involved in polyp growth.
Manual growth of organoids is very time-consuming and labour intensive. Large numbers of organoids may be needed for some purposes. Cellesce, a biotechnology company resulting from a collaboration between engineers at Bath University and biologists at Cardiff University, has developed a unique bio-process to grow organoids on an industrial scale, to enable pharmaceutical companies, for example, to use them in drug discovery, to identify specific treatments to help FAP and MAP patients. Many potential treatments can be screened in this way to indicate which has the greatest effect on the tumour cells and would potentially be beneficial to patients.
Laura’s team are the first in the world to have comprehensively studied the genetic sequence of polyps in the small bowel in patients with MAP and FAP . They are world-leaders and are putting Wales on the map in their efforts to improve the lives of patients with these mutations.
The future will see the team strengthen their links with industry in Wales through their partnership with Cellesce, to develop organoid models which can be made commercially available, at scale, to other researchers and companies, working in this field. In addition to gaining further knowledge on the genetic causes of polyps and strategies for treatments, Dr Thomas and her team are also leading the largest international study of duodenal disease, following patients with MAP to find out when and how they are developing polyps and cancer. This will help to determine the appropriate timings and methods of surveillance and surgical interventions for their disease, to aid in cancer prevention.
Accelerate is co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund. To find out more, visit: lshubwales.com/accelerate