Professor Peter Croucher is the interim Executive Director of the Garvan Institute in Sydney. His main research focus is tumours that grow in the bone, such as multiple myeloma, or those that metastasise to bone, including breast and prostate cancer. In this interview he discusses his career path which led him to bone biology, the exciting developments happening in his field and gives top tips for aspiring endocrinologists.
Tell us about your career so far
I did my initial training in zoology at Cardiff University, followed by a PhD in cell biology at the medical school in Cardiff. I then spent time in Cambridge before moving to the University of Sheffield to specialise in skeletal disease. After a stint at the University of Oxford I returned to Sheffield as a Professor of bone biology and ran the department of human metabolism. Here we set up an institute called the Mellanby Centre for Bone Research. Then 10 years ago, I was approached by the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney to lead their bone programme and I’ve been there since. Over the last few years, I’ve been head of various parts of the Garvan Institute, most recently the deputy director and then in the last three months, the Interim Executive Director. It’s pretty varied and has been an adventure, which has been fun.
What drew you to specialise in bone biology?
After doing zoology, I was offered the opportunity of doing a PhD in the medical school, and I worked with Juliet Compston, who is an expert on osteoporosis.. Since then I’ve always worked in skeletal biology, or cancer of the growing bone.
Tell us about your current research
One of the major projects I’m working on is trying to understand why cancers grow in the skeleton. There are a number of cancers that grow in the skeleton with – multiple myeloma is one example, and breast and prostate cancers can also spread from primary tumours to the skeleton. We do know that once they’ve spread to the skeleton, they’re difficult to treat and often regarded as incurable, causing devastating effects to the skeleton and bone disease. We are trying to understand why tumours grow in the in the skeleton, what controls an individual tumour cell when it first arrives in the skeleton and why these cells can live in a long-term, dormant state before they get woken up to form active disease. If we can understand what holds them in a dormant state and then what causes them to wake up this will help us identify new therapeutic targets in order to eradicate these cells and stop the cancers growing in the skeleton.
What are your career highlights so far?
My highlights are typically associated with the people I have had the pleasure of working with or with scientific discoveries associated with these collaborations. A good example was the first time we saw a dormant cancer cell in a living animal, and then being able to isolate those cells to work out all the genes that control the behaviour of those cells. This was a important as it opened up the prospect of being able to tackle an important clinical challenge for the first time. However, probably my biggest highlight has been the ability to work with some wonderful colleagues; both withi the Garvan Institute but also in laboratories across the globe. It is enormously satisfying to be able to work with great colleagues to be able to tackle important scientific and clinical questions.
What are the biggest challenges your field faces?
Some of the most exciting area are new imaging approaches, for example intravital imaging, which in our case is allowing us to find very rare cancer cells and study them for the very first time in living organisms. The advent of approaches to sequence an individual’s genome, or to work out all the genes that are switched on in a particular cell are exciting new developments. Being able to analyse this data at a scale that was not previously possible is truly exciting .
What are the most exciting developments happening in your field?
Some of the most exciting things are imaging approaches, which allow us to find very rare cancer cells and study them for the very first time. Also data science and the advent of approaches to sequence an individual’s genome, or to work out all the genes that are switched on in a particular cell and be able to analyse that at scale that we’ve never really had until the last couple of years. I think the developments and opportunities that come with these discoveries are really important.
What’s coming up at your SfE BES lecture?
I’ll be talking about how we’ve been successful in finding very rare, dormant cancer cells in the skeleton. We’ve been using single-cell sequencing approaches to identify the genes that control dormant cancer cells and the various specialised environments where they live. I’ll also explain how this provides important insights into what controls dormancy and how we might be able to use this information to target and eradicate these cells in the future.
What advice would you give someone starting out in the field?
I would say to identify an area that you feel passionate about, then to try and address an important question that’s going to have a big impact in that area. Do things that are difficult and are going to have impact.
You can attend Professor Peter Croucher’s 2022 International Medal Lecture “Insights into the Cell and Molecular Control Pathways that Regulate Cancers in the Skeleton“ on Tuesday 15 November from 9:00 – 9:30am.
Take a look at the full scientific programme for SfE BES 2022.