Winter Talk with Cancer Research UK

4th Nov 2020

Our 17th series of Winter Talks opened on Wednesday 4 November with a wonderfully inspiring account of the work of Professor Greg Hannon, director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute.

In conversation with Chris Gethin, director of philanthropy at Cancer Research UK, Professor Hannon outlined his pioneering research as lead investigator on IMAXT (Imaging and Molecular Annotation of Xenografts and Tumours), an international team of experts who are developing an entirely new way to study cancer.

With experts drawn from widely diverse fields such as medicine, astronomy, programming, molecular biology, statistics and video game design, IMAXT is building the first computerised 3-D tumour that can be viewed in virtual reality. “We have something called ‘Superman mode’ which literally lets you fly inside a tumour,” said Professor Hannon. “I liken it to putting a man on Mars in that there’s nothing that violates the laws of physics, but there’s just so much technology you have to develop to do it.”

Current technologies, he explained look at tumour samples or cells individually, rather than in the context of the surrounding environment. The challenge for IMAXT was to present fully annotated tumours, allowing researchers unprecedented access to every cell in the cancer with precise information on its location, characteristics and behaviour: “It’s incredibly complicated, because tumour cells are heterogeneous; they have different genetics, different properties, and they also exist in the context of interacting with all the normal cells of the patients. In order to solve the cancer problem, we have to embrace that complexity.”

However sensitive imaging may become in future, however highly developed the Artificial Intelligence supporting such investigations, Professor Hannon argues there will always be room for instinct in medical research:

“I guess I have a belief that there’s still a place for human intuition. We’ve evolved as pattern-recognition engines. We need to know what to run away from, we need to know what food we need to climb a tree to pick; looking at an object has the potential to generate a hypothesis that can be tested. But we are also very good at fooling ourselves. So, we need both parts - we need the robust statistical analysis, but we also need ways to engage with data that allow us to use our intuition.”

With many interested and interesting questions from our virtual audience (some 200 guests), the event closed on a highly positive note:

“I think,” said Professor Hannon, ‘that the IMAXT project is at the very cutting edge of how people will understand not only cancer, but organism development, because it allows us to watch cells communicating with each other in 3-D. It’s the future of biology.”

Thursday, November 12, 2020