The extracellular matrix (ECM) is the "glue" that binds cells together to form tissue. Within a malignant tumour the matrix composition and properties are abnormal. A key ECM component is the biopolymer hyaluronan (also known as hyaluornic acid). It binds to the tumour cells via CD44 cell surface receptors. For a number of tumour types high hyaluronan content is indicative of a poor prognosis for the patient. In addition hyaluornan has been implicated in many stages of cancer disease progression. We would like to find out exactly what hyaluoronans role is and exploit this knowledge to target the tumour and prevent cancer cells from breaking off from the primary site and spreading.
We are also interested in looking a hyaluronan in other animals for example the Naked Mole Rat in order to better understand cancer resistance. Naked mole rat hyaluronan is of a very high molecular weight which makes it an interesting model to develop materials that can be used to trap cancer cells. We would like to design extracellular matrix mimicking materials based on Naked Mole Rat hyaluornan which could be used to trap cancer cells in order to stop local recurrence and spreading of the disease. This work is in collaboration with Ewan St John Smith, Cambridge University.
High hylauronan content in tumours is also a barrier to effective chemotherapy delivery and hyaluornan build up can be a contributing factor to acquired drug resistance. In collaboration with Jason Gill in pharmacy we are looking at how we can "break down" this barrier and deliver drugs more effectively.