The Scientists

Dr Magali Williamson

Dr Boris Shorning

Professor Anne Ridley

Dr Matthew Smalley

The Objective

This research is identifying the genetic changes that allow prostate cancer cells to spread, so that therapy can be developed to prevent spread and kill the cancer cells that have spread.

About the research

There are enormous gaps in our understanding of how and why cancer cells spread. Prostate cancer cells can develop the ability to migrate out of their normal environment and then invade blood vessels and get carried around the body in the blood to grow at distant sites.

Our scientists argued that if we could understand how prostate cancer cells acquire the ability to spread, then it might be possible to halt the process or target and kill the cancer cells that had spread.

Dr Magali Williamson, working in the PCRC laboratory, set out to identify changes that allow prostate cancer cells to spread. She started by looking at proteins that help cells move. She thought that mutations (changes in the structure) of one of these proteins might be crucial.

Dr Williamson selected a small number of proteins to study, concentrating on Plexins. The choice was inspired, because she discovered that one of these proteins, called Plexin B1, is mutated in a high proportion of prostate cancers.

Her discovery was published in the prestigious scientific journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. She had found that nearly half of prostate cancers that had not spread were mutated, compared to nearly all the cancers that had spread. These findings suggested that the mutations are one of the changes enabling prostate cancer cells to spread.

In order to prove that the mutations help prostate cancer cells to spread, Dr Williamson has worked with our colleagues Dr Matthew Smalley and Dr Boris Shorning at Cardiff University. In animal models, they have confirmed that changes in Plexin B1 promote the spread of prostate cancer.

Dr Williamson has continued to study the mechanism by which the mutations in Plexin B1 help the cancer cells migrate. This work has identified a number of potential therapeutic targets in prostate cancer that might be used to attack the cancer cells.


While prostate cancer is retained within the prostate, it can be cured with radiotherapy or surgery. It is the spread of the disease that makes the difference between cure and failure.

The new approaches being developed could halt the spread of the disease or kill the cancer cells that have spread.