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The therapy works like a Pacman gobbling up the other cells.

First celebrated in 2000, World Cancer Day aims to raise awareness of a disease which claims millions of lives every year. The goal is that more research into innovative treatments will one day save many more lives from this condition. Dr Patricia Muller in our Biosciences department is working to discover whether mutant p53 cells can be manipulated to eat particles posing as cells while leaving healthy cells untouched.

What is your research?

In our lab, we are studying how changes, otherwise known as mutations, in the protein p53 play a role in the process of metastasis, where a clump of cancerous cells breaks away and moves to another part of the body. We have found that those tumour cells with changes in p53 are more likely to spread and do not respond well to chemotherapy. We are trying to understand how that works and if we can develop therapies that can specifically destroy mutant p53 tumour cells.  

What new methods of treating cancer are you exploring?

One of the therapies we are looking at is based on the capacity of mutant p53 cells to eat other cells. They behave like a Pacman and gobble up other tumour cells, immune cells and our normal cells. We believe that by doing this these cells gain the ability to spread and prevent detection by the immune system. However, this capacity to eat big cells, might also give the opportunity to destroy mutant p53 cancer cells. We are looking at ways to simulate giving a big particle that looks like a big cell and fill it with something that destroys the mutant p53 cancer cell when it has eaten that particle, which is bit like a Trojan horse.

These 4 images show a red mutant p53 cells that has eaten another green cell.  This picture shows that the green cell is inside the red cell.

How do you make it so that only the cancerous particles will be eaten?

Our current work is focussed on the mechanisms of how mutant p53 cancer cells eat these particles using the state-of-the-art microscopy suite within Biosciences. In addition, with Dr Margarita Staykova from our Physics department, we are also trying to make these particles as appetising for mutant p53 cancer cells as possible, but at the same time avoiding that our normal cells can eat them. To achieve this, we make the outside look more like a cell and coat them with the proteins that you find on the outer surface of a human cell.

Find out more:

  • Find out more about Dr Patricia Muller and her research.
  • Find out more about World Cancer Day here.
  • Read an article about this work in Nature here.
  • Full caption for the image included: Mutant p53 cells have the capacity to eat other cells. These four images show a red mutant p53 cells that has eaten another green cell. We can look at a cell in normal light microscopy (left) and then use lasers to detect red or green fluorescent protein. As we had labelled mutant p53 cells with a red fluorescent protein and the other cell with a green fluorescent protein we can take two different pictures and then overlay these in the right-hand picture to show that the green cell is inside the red cell.

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