Identifying new treatments for children with rhabdomyosarcoma

18 September 2014

Dr Zoë Walters, The Institute of Cancer Research, London

Zoë was awarded a Paul O’Gorman Post-doctoral Research Fellowship in 2014 to take forward her research in rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer affecting around 70 children a year in the UK. Zoë aims to test the effectiveness of a new, targeted treatment that may ultimately prolong lives and reduce the side effects of treatment.

Amount of award: £398,770 | Date of award: May 2014


Every year in the UK around 70 children are diagnosed with rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer that resembles developing skeletal muscle. The outcome for some children with this disease is extremely poor and treatment has remained largely unchanged for 20 years.

As well as being ineffective in some young patients, current treatments can cause long-term side effects that seriously impact upon normal development. New treatments are required in order to improve the outlook for all patients.

Identifying new ways to tackle childhood cancers

Identification of new drug targets often comes about by looking for proteins that are found at higher levels in tumours than healthy tissues. In previous work, Zoë has identified a protein called Enhancer of Zeste Homolog 2 (EZH2) that is present at higher levels in tumour tissue and can be inhibited by recently developed drugs.

During the course of her Fellowship, Zoë will determine the extent to which EZH2 is overexpressed in rhabdomyosarcoma and whether by drugging the protein we can stop and potentially kill these tumours. From laboratory testing, she hopes to provide evidence to incorporate these drugs into the clinical setting.

A more targeted treatment may be more effective and limit the harmful side effects seen with current treatments.

About Zoë

Dr Zoe WaltersThrough our Children with Cancer UK Research Fellowships, we aim to support outstanding scientists in the development of a career in childhood cancer research.

Our aim is to identify ‘research leaders of the future’ and provide them with the support they need to achieve their full potential, making sure their talents are retained within the childhood cancer field.

Zoë was awarded her Children with Cancer UK Research Fellowship in 2014, one of our first Research Fellows.

Zoë completed her PhD at the University of Sussex, working on genes and proteins that are involved in the development of the fruit fly wing, which are also aberrant in many tumour types. By studying these genes and proteins in normal development using model organisms we gain insight into how these proteins work and how they lead to tumour formation when things go wrong.

She did her first postdoc at Cardiff University before coming to Janet Shipley’s lab at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in 2008 to work on rhabdomyosarcoma. Since then she has been working on a number of epigenetic proteins that contribute to the growth of rhabdomyosarcoma tumours, providing her with the unique skills to study these proteins and how they may be exploited as therapeutic targets for treating rhabdomyosarcoma.

“My interest in science can be traced all the way back to the age of seven when I drew a picture of myself in a white ‘dress’, which turned out to be a lab coat. It had the caption - when I grow up I want to be a researcher - ! I have always been passionate about the study of genetics and how that relates to biology, with a particular focus on childhood cancer research. I hope that one day my work will lead to a new treatment for this disease to improve survival rates and reduce the damaging side effects for the patients.”
Dr Zoë Walters

Read more: Children with Cancer UK Research Fellowships

What difference will this research make?

Over the last 20 years or so there has been very little change in the treatment regime for young patients with rhabdomyosarcoma. As current treatments, while sometimes effective, often result in long term side effects we desperately need a more specific (targeted) therapy.

Zoë aims to develop a new treatment for rhabdomyosarcoma patients that can be taken forward to clinical trial. The more targeted approach may have less severe side effects and improve the survival rates for rhabdomyosarcoma patients with a poor prognosis.

Read more: About rhabdomyosarcoma | Other rhabdomyosarcoma research


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