Building an atlas of rhabdomyosarcoma to better guide research into the disease

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a form of soft-tissue sarcoma that starts in the muscle cells, but its biology is not well understood. The cancer is thought to originate from foetal cells that have developed incorrectly. These cells don’t usually exist after the child is born, but they somehow persist in children with rhabdomyosarcoma. Understanding why this happens is essential for improving how we treat the disease. Dr Sam Behjati and his team are building a brain atlas – a guide to the genetic landscape of the foetal cells in children with rhabdomyosarcoma. They hope to use their findings to identify targets for new treatments.

This project is co-funded with Cancer Research UK as part of the Cancer Research UK–Children with Cancer UK Innovation Awards. Children with Cancer UK has contributed £377,000 towards this research project, the total cost of the project is £754,000

Project Details

  • Project Title

    A single cell mRNA atlas of rhabdomyosarcoma at presentation and relapse – identifying foetal developmental targets

  • Lead Researcher

    Dr Sam Behjati and Dr Karin Straathof

  • Research Centre

    Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, University College London

  • City & Institution Postcode

    London, NW1 2BE

  • Start Date

    --

  • Duration

    36 months

  • Grant Amount

    £754,000

Dr Sam Behjati2

Overview

Rhabdomyosarcoma is a form of soft-tissue sarcoma that starts in the muscle cells. Its biology is mainly unexplored, particularly how it forms when the infant is developing as a foetus. The cancer is thought to originate from undifferentiated foetal cells that have developed incorrectly. These cells don’t usually exist after the child is born, but they somehow persist in children with rhabdomyosarcoma. Understanding why this happens is essential for improving how we treat the disease.

By researching this, Dr Sam Behjati and his team hope to use their findings to identify weaknesses that can be targeted through new treatments for the disease. To do this, they are building a cell atlas – a guide to the cells that form rhabdomyosarcomas. They will analyse the tumour samples gathered at the time of initial diagnosis and again if patients relapse, then use the results to help develop new treatments. They intend to profile 250,000 rhabdomyosarcoma cells and will make their atlas available so that other researchers can use it to inform their own investigations, potentially helping children with many other forms of cancer too.

Potential impact

There has been little progress in understanding the mechanisms behind rhabdomyosarcoma over the past two decades, which makes the insights this study could provide all the more important. The findings may also have relevance beyond rhabdomyosarcomas. The approach of developing the atlas could also be replicated for other cancer types, and the findings themselves may also have relevance.

About the research team

Dr Sam Behjati is a paediatrician scientist and research group leader. His lab works across the fields of cellular genetics and cancer.

Dr Karin Straathof is a Wellcome Trust clinician scientist and honorary consultant at University College London.

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