White is a physician-scientist who studies how developmental genetic programmes are coopted in cancer. These programmes induce plasticity, allowing cells to take on new characteristics above and beyond their DNA alterations, so influencing the likelihood of their becoming cancerous and metastasising. He is a world leader in modelling cancer in zebrafish, in particular a transparent model named casper that is easy to manipulate genetically and permits high-resolution imaging of individual cancer cells as they spread.
Richard’s scientific creativity is evident in the originality of his experimental approach and in the many significant discoveries from his lab over the couple of years,” said Chi Van Dang, scientific director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. “We see great potential for synergy in his exploration of tumour progression and the research programme and expertise currently assembled at Ludwig Oxford and other Ludwig laboratories - Chi Van Dang, scientific director of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research
White’s recent studies have established a novel paradigm in cancer research, which is called “oncogenic competence.” This is the idea that only certain cells are competent to respond to a given set of DNA alterations, while other cells are impervious to the same mutations. Using a zebrafish model of melanoma, his lab found that a class of developmental genes known as neural crest specifiers can endow a cell with competence to form a tumour. Additional work showed that melanocytes in different parts of the body have unique genetic and epigenetic competence factors, and these give rise to anatomically distinct tumours. This suggests that the genes controlling anatomic position may be a new class of therapeutic targets in cancer.
Moving beyond tumour initiation, White’s work in casper has allowed him to uncover new mechanisms involved in metastasis, the major cause of cancer mortality. This revealed that metastatic cells often move in clusters, rather than as single cells, and cooperate in seeding new metastatic sites. What drives these cells to become more metastatic is still somewhat mysterious, but his work so far has pointed to interactions with certain cells in the microenvironment called adipocytes as important factors. The adipocytes can “donate” fatty acids to the melanoma cells, making them more invasive. White now plans to explore, among other things, how cell-cell interactions more broadly affect the epigenetic state of invasive cells.
We are confident that there is great potential for collaborative research with Richard here at Ludwig Oxford, especially as we’ve placed an emphasis on the exploration of cancer epigenetics and the application of that research to diagnostics and therapy, - Ludwig Oxford Director Xin Lu
We are at a pivotal moment in cancer research, in which laboratory discoveries can have significant impact in the clinic,” said White. “I am especially excited to join the Ludwig Oxford community, with its unique blend of basic and translational biology. I look forward to working closely with other groups and applying our technologies to these fundamental questions in cancer. - Richard White
White joins Ludwig Oxford from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Medical College, where he has since 2012 been an associate professor of cancer biology and genetics.