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Cancer is a disease of chance. Nobody is destined to developed cancer, but the probabilities can vary hugely for or against it. This is because tumours form when DNA is damaged “in all the wrong places”. There are over 3 billion positions in human DNA, and only a few thousand ways to damage them that will cause cancer. However, the level of damage to our DNA that we accumulate over a lifetime depends heavily on how we live, and what we expose ourselves to.

We know from population studies that cancer is more frequent in smokers, and that certain lifestyle choices, such as regular exercise, can reduce the chance of getting cancer. My research group is trying to understand how such “environmental” factors affect the cells in our organs, and how this ultimately leads to mutations (accidental changes to the information in the DNA).

For example, we are currently interested in cancers of the oesophagus and the stomach. These tumours often show very high numbers of mutations, but it is not known what chemical agent could be responsible for this. Together with other groups, we are performing experiments and comparing the results to publicly available “big data sets” to try and understand how the unique environment in the upper stomach affects cells, leading to an increase in mutations and a higher risk of developing cancer.