Western Mail Profiles: Dr Paul Brennan, Cardiff University

‘Knowing what causes cancer can treat it’

Dr Paul Brennan is a Reader in the School of Medicine at Cardiff University.

Since I was in university, I have been interested in my immune system.

There’s a battle between the cells in my body and the microbes that feed on me. I thought for a while I’d be a banker, like my father but the thrill of learning how my body works was too great.

My research began in Dublin, continued in London and then brought me to Cardiff where I jointly lead the Cardiff CLL Research Group.

The white cells inside our body keep us alive. These cells fascinate me. They defend against viruses, bacteria and help heal our body.

However, these immune cells sometimes cause cancer. Their normal growth becomes uncontrolled.

My team and I study the molecules that regulate cell growth.

By knowing what causes the cancer, we hope to be able to develop novel treatments, to understand and to alter the course of the disease. It’s a slow process but this research has the potential to improve the lives of people in Wales over the next 20 years.

The Cardiff CLL Research Group is an internationally competitive group of scientists, doctors and students. Our work depends on support from Leukaemia and Lymphoma Research UK and the Leukaemia Research Appeal for Wales.

We study chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), the commonest form of cancer of white cells. Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia affects mainly older people.

In some cases, it causes few symptoms, while for other patients the disease needs to be treated urgently. Treatment usually clears the leukaemia but it often returns. My research focuses on molecules that connect to the outside of the cell to the DNA of the cell – how the cells receive messages and how they respond.

The response can be to live, to grow or to die. The wrong response can lead to cancer.

To study the molecules in primary human leukaemia cells, we count and manipulate these molecules.

For example, we have discovered that large amounts of a molecule called NF-kB is linked to the growth of chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.

We have identified inhibitors of NF-kB that cause the death of leukaemia cells. NF-kB may prove to be an important target for treatment of human cancers.

I am fortunate to work with a motivated and engaging group of researchers. We talk about our work – in the lab, in meetings, in the bar – and sometimes, going home, I genuinely feel that we have moved one step closer to a cure for cancer.

To contact Paul email brennanp@cardiff.ac.uk.

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail‘s Health Wales supplement on the 23rd January 2012, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.