What Embyro Development Can Teach Us About Fighting Cancer

Human development is one of the most elegant biological phenomena where rapid but controlled cellular growth leads to a healthy human life. On the other hand, cancer is an uncontrolled growth of cells often resulting in insurmountable pain and death.

There are some uncanny resemblances between embryo development and cancer, and studying these similarities at a cellular level excites our newly appointed Women’s Cancer Senior Fellow at the Harry Perkins Institute, Dr Ankur Sharma, who is also Head of the newly established Oncofetal Ecosystem Laboratory.

Over the past five years Dr Sharma has been using technologies, particularly single cell analysis techniques, to develop a method of predicting the similarities between cancer and early development with a goal to predict which patients are likely to develop cancer and which cancers they are likely to have.

His work started by studying liver cancer and looking at why it develops. During this study he stumbled upon a very interesting finding: in cancer, some of the cells which are part of the cancer supporting system are also found in foetal tissue.

“We see very interesting similarities between foetal-liver development and liver cancer. The similarities occur as if cancer remembers the early blue-prints of life,” he says.

“If you go back and match the cell types present during foetal-liver development with the cell types of cancerous adult liver we find lots of shared cell types. Importantly, in both, the immune system is kept at bay. Now we are working on methods to revert these programs and thereby empower the immune system to fight cancer,” he says.

Currently Dr Sharma is particularly interested in analysing women’s cancers, such as endometrial tumours which also arise from highly regenerative cells, in this case in the linings of the uterus. Almost 1 in 9 women is affected by endometriosis. It is a disease that hampers reproductive life and some (~3%) may develop cancer in their lifetime. However, it remains to be investigated whether we can predict risk of cancer in these patients.

“We think this can be achieved by examining historic patient biopsies held in tissue banks or archives of patients who have endometriosis and then comparing the samples of those whose endometriosis resulted in cancer to those who did not, to see if there is a difference.

“After predicting which patients may develop cancer, the next challenge is to find ‘the right drug for the right patient’ by understanding why some patients respond to treatments and others do not.

“I am driven to overcome the emotional toll of enduring treatment, which at times is ineffective and expensive. Our aim is to find ‘the right drug for the right patient’ for ultimate benefit of patients, families and society,” he says.

This article originally appeared on the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research’s website. ACRF has awarded $5.35m in grants to the Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research for cancer research. Our esteemed Medical Research Advisory Committee ensures that only the most promising cancer research initiatives in Australia receive our funding. If you would like to financially contribute, please go to acrf.com.au/donate