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Meet the researcher - Dr Chris Staples

Dr Chris Staples is a Cancer Research Wales researcher who is currently being funded for work at Bangor University to understand how cancer cells become resistant to chemotherapy and how we might be able to prevent this on bowel and lung cancer. We asked him a series of questions to learn more about his life-changing work and the reasons behind his studies.

1. What area of cancer research do you focus on?

Cancer cells (like all cells) must copy their entire genome before they can divide, and the cancer can grow. Many chemotherapies work by interfering with the process of DNA copying or ‘replication’. How cancer cells deal with these replication blocks helps determine whether they are destroyed by chemotherapy, and therefore how well the treatment works. Our work focuses on figuring out the ways in which different cancer cells respond to replication-blocking chemotherapies. For example, patients with a mutation in BRCA genes are more likely to respond to replication-targeting drugs like Olaparib. The more we know about why this is the case, the better we can determine how to treat cancers, and how to maximise patient benefit.

2. What is your Cancer Research Wales project aiming to do in this area?

Several chemotherapies leave behind gaps in the DNA of cancer cells. These gaps are toxic to the cell, and the number of gaps correlates with how well the tumours respond to treatment. We have discovered a new cellular factor which limits these gaps, and are working to understand how it does this, and whether we can use this information to develop new ways to target certain cancers, or to tailor treatment selection and stratify patients more effectively.

3. Have there been any key achievements so far during the project?

Yes, we have shown clearly that cancers deficient in the novel protein we have identified are more sensitive to several chemotherapies, and that this sensitivity is due to the presence of DNA gaps. We have also identified subsets of ovarian cancers that have lost this factor, and which respond well to Olaparib. We have also determined the mechanism via which this novel protein acts at the molecular level – if we are armed with this information, we can exploit it in an informed manner. This is very exciting as prior to our work, the role of this protein was completely unknown.

4. How might your research make a difference to cancer patients in Wales?

Though cancer researchers have made excellent progress over the last few decades, and survival rates are improving, cancer incidence in Wales is on the rise. Through our work, we hope to better understand why some cancers respond better to treatment than others. This will benefit cancer patients in Wales and beyond.

5. Why/how did you become a Cancer Research Wales researcher?

It is sadly rare to find a family whose lives have not been impacted by cancer, and our family is no exception. I lost my grandad to bowel cancer many years ago, and though the medical professionals treating him were amazing and did their very best, it was apparent even to me as a youth that there were serious issues around diagnosis, and limited treatment options. Twenty-five years later, and both diagnosis and treatment have improved vastly - but we can always do more. We will do our very best to make meaningful discoveries that can further our understanding of cancer cell responses to therapy. We are proud to be supported by Cancer Research Wales, who have done so much for cancer patients in Wales, and whose contribution has played a major role in ensuring that Welsh cancer research receives the support that it deserves.

6. Is there anything you would like to say to our supporters?

Simply that without your contribution, we would not be where we are today in the global fight against cancer. Many patients are alive today because of your collective support, and the support of others like you. So, I would like to take the opportunity to thank you all sincerely.