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About Us

Our work

The MRC Cancer Unit undertakes world-leading research into understanding how cancers develop, and seeks to translate this knowledge into new approaches for diagnosis and treatment that can be applied in the clinic.

Our focus is on discovering the early steps in epithelial carcinogenesis, because we believe that better understanding of these steps will lead to new methods to improve the care and survival of patients with epithelial malignancies such as pancreatic, oesophageal, lung, breast and skin cancers.

Our work has four main objectives:

  • To improve understanding of the mechanisms that determine the progression from pre-neoplasia to neoplasia in epithelial tissues.
  • To evaluate their contribution to cancer pathogenesis using preclinical or clinical experimental models.
  • To exploit this information for the development of new predictive or therapeutic interventions.
  • Through these research activities, to provide a unique cross-disciplinary environment for the training of scientists and clinicians in translational cancer research.

Our research spans the following areas:

Chromosomal instability in cancer pathogenesis and treatment - led by Professor Ashok Venkitaraman

  • Pathogenesis and therapy of BRCA2-deficient cancers
  • DNA replication and repair mechanisms
  • Chromosome segregation mechanisms
  • Molecular and cellular imaging
  • Chemical biology and molecular therapeutics initiative


Oesophago-gastric adenocarninoma and Barrett’s oesophagus- led by Dr Rebecca Fitzgerald

  • Development of a screening and treatment strategy for Barrett's oesophagus
  • Understanding how Barrett's oesophagus develops into oesophageal adenocarcinoma and developing diagnostic tools to predict progression
  • Clinical and molecular factors affecting the outcome of oesophageal adenocarcinoma to develop prognostic algorithms and novel therapeutics


Stem cells and cancer - led by Dr Phil Jones

  • Stem cell behaviour in the development of cancer
  • Lineage tracing to track stem cells in vivo


Modelling tumour development and therapy- led by Dr Carla Martins

  • Mechanisms required for lung tumour evolution and maintenance


Defining a role for lymphatics in the developing tumour microenvironment - led by Dr Jacqui Shields

  • Formation and maintenance of the specialised stroma that fosters tumour development, and how lymphatic vessel function contributes to this


Understanding the metabolic transformation of cancer cells- led by Dr Christian Frezza

  • The role of altered metabolism in cancer and understanding how metabolic transformation regulates the process of tumorigenesis


Cancer metastasis- led by Dr Sakari Vanharanta

  • Regulation of metastatic cancer cell traits



Our history

The MRC Cancer Unit (formerly known as the MRC Cancer Cell Unit) was founded in 2001 by Professor Ron Laskey. It has become a leading centre for translational cancer research, producing highly innovative research with substantial clinical impact. In 2013 it joined the University of Cambridge as a University Unit, and has been known as the MRC Cancer Unit since the 1st October 2013.

The current Director of the Unit is Professor Ashok Venkitaraman.

The Unit is a key participant in the Cambridge Cancer Centre, and has a unique place in the MRC's national portfolio through its focus on disease-oriented translational research. Research highlights originating from the Unit include the development of a diagnostic test for cervical and other cancers based on fundamental studies of DNA replication, the discovery of the essential functions of the epithelial cancer suppressor BRCA2 in maintaining chromosome stability, the use of quantitative cell fate tracking and statistical physics to uncover a new paradigm of epithelial homeostasis, and the development of a screening test for Barrett's oesophagus.


Our location

The Unit is located in the Hutchison/MRC Research Centre, a state-of-the-art facility financed by contributions from the Medical Research Council and a benefaction to Cambridge University from Hutchison-Whampoa. The Hutchison/MRC Research Centre also houses laboratories of the University's Department of Oncology. Both the MRC Cancer Unit and the Department of Oncology encompass a wide range of activities from basic science to clinical exploitation, which benefit from the critical mass and economies of scale arising from the joint infrastructure and facilities shared throughout the Research Centre building.

The Unit is located on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, and thus neighbours many other research institutions such as the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology, the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research, and the CRUK Cambridge Institute. In addition the site also hosts a wide range of clinical research activities, creating a vibrant environment for collaboration.