Cancer invasion and metastasis

Dr Guy Lyons, Head

By understanding the genes that cancer cells use to become malignant, Dr Guy Lyons aims to identify new strategies for treating squamous cell carcinomas (SCCs) of the skin, and of the mouth and throat region, two of the most common sites for cancer.

Patients with skin SCCs that have already metastasised at the time of diagnosis have only a 33 per cent chance of long-term survival; those with mouth or throat SCCs have only a 50 per cent chance, and there has not been much improvement for decades. Surgery at either site, even when successful, can be disfiguring. Clearly, there is a need for innovative approaches to finding better treatments for SCCs.

The key feature that makes cancer tumours malignant is their ability to spread destructively into the tissues that surround them (invasion) and to distant organs (metastasis). Of particular interest are genes that cause benign tumours (which are non-invasive and usually easy to treat) to become malignant through a process called epithelial-mesenchymal transition. These genes also make SCC cells resistant to radiation therapy.

Dr Lyons has proposed a novel theory about how cancers form. Under his theory, cancer-causing genes are present in distinct tumour cells that interact to cause malignancy. His research uses a broad range of molecular and biological resources and methods, including cell culture, genetically modified mice and computer modelling.

The research team

  • Naomi Delic, Research assistant
  • Paul Sou, MPhil student

Featured image

skin cells

When skin cells become cancerous, they lose their ability to undergo a process called “terminal differentiation”, which stops them from growing and forms the barrier properties of skin. This picture of skin cells, taken with a fluorescence microscope, shows cells that have undergone terminal differentiation to varying degrees. All cells have developed their barrier structures (red) and many have lost their DNA (blue).