Cancer is reminiscent of the developing embryo. Both involve cell movement, tissue growth, and changes in cell identity. The difference lies in the embryo’s capacity for regulating these events to ensure proper organisation and function. The embryo can thus serve as a tool to understand mechanisms of tissue control that go awry in cancer.
Carcinomas are the most frequent form of cancer in the adult body. They derive from cellular sheets called epithelia, which make up the skin and line internal organs. In the developing embryo, epithelia remodel and expand in a controlled manner. I study the first dynamic epithelium that arises in mouse embryonic development. Specifically, I show in a genetic mutant that this epithelium can grow excessively and become disorganised. I use a combination of imaging and sequencing methods to probe the cellular basis for this defect, and will ultimately use genetics to reverse the dysregulation.
Compromised epithelial maintenance is a consistent beginning stage across the diversity of carcinomas seen in humans. Insights from the embryo can give us clues as to how we can target the root of the disease. My work on recovering a disrupted embryonic epithelium can have profound clinical implications.
Di Hu is a graduate student at Jesus College. She is studying for a DPhil in the group of Prof Shankar Srinivas.