Categories: Sanger Life15 May 20193.8 min read

Caring for children with cancer

We explore the world of award-winning cancer scientist, Dr Sam Behjati

By: Ali Cranage, science writer at the Wellcome Sanger Institute

Dr Sam Behjati looks after children with cancer. He is a Consultant Paediatric Oncologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge and a Group Leader in Cellular Genetics at the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

Sam was recently awarded the Dr Simon Newell Early Career Investigator of the Year award, by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), Sparks charity and Great Ormond Street Hospital Children’s Charity .

The award is made for excellence in research, to an outstanding young researcher in British paediatrics. He spoke to us about his research, which focuses on understanding the origins of childhood cancers.

We first discussed why Sam became a researcher. It wasn’t because he loved the laboratory.

“The first time I did lab work was as a visiting student in Harvard. I didn’t like the actual lab work, but the data and the buzz around it was great.”

“In fact I really hate cells and growing cells. It was a bad start.”

But science suits him, he says. “I am fundamentally attracted to research and the asking of questions. I never considered becoming a doctor without doing science.”

Sam came to the Sanger Institute to undertake a PhD in cancer genomics, using computational methods. After time away to complete clinical training, he returned to the Sanger as a group leader. His team aims to find the origins of childhood cancers.

“Childhood cancers are completely different to adult cancers. Adult cancers arise after a lifetime of exposure to factors that can damage DNA; both internal, like errors that creep in when our DNA replicates, and external, like UV light. But in childhood cancers, there’s been little exposure to these. The DNA changes that can give rise to childhood cancers are already present at birth, and we want to track them down.”

Sam’s previous work uncovered the genetic changes that drive the growth of a variety bone and soft tissue tumours, including of some very rare tumours of infants. These findings will help diagnose and treat patients, as well as advance research.

Sam’s latest approach uses new technologies to sequence the mRNA of cancer cells. This data provides a picture of what cancer cells are and how individual cells are functioning. He compares the information from cancer cells to the same data from related healthy tissues, looking for similarities and differences. He works closely with the developmental Human Cell Atlas project, which provides the reference information on how cells function in the earliest stages of life.

Sam has shown that childhood cancers can be caused by cells that are ‘stuck’ in an early developmental phase.

“If childhood cancer has a developmental cause, we could develop treatments to target that pathway, rather than the tumours themselves. But at the moment, the quantitative basis for doing that is lacking. So we’re providing it. We are filling the void [of information] with exact readouts of RNA.”

Sam aims to build a knowledge base that provides precise, quantitative descriptions of the developmental states of cells in all childhood cancers.

Genomics and advanced DNA and RNA sequencing techniques have transformed cancer science, says Sam. “Cancer science is logical, quantitative, and unbiased now.”

But that transformation hasn’t changed the way we treat cancer, as yet. The next challenge will be using the latest findings in the clinic.

“The idea now is to give drugs to cells and see what they do to the function and identity of those cells, which we can read off from the DNA.

“Perhaps we might find new ways of treating childhood cancers, we could change cancer cells into something non-cancerous, rather than killing them.”

Find out more

Research carried out by Dr Sam Behjati