I did my undergraduate BSc studies in Biology at the University of Sussex and the Université de Grenoble.  Following two and half years as a Research Assistant with Professor Potten at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research, I studied the control of proliferation in the normal and neoplastic human mammary gland for my PhD at The University of Manchester (1995). Subsequently, I undertook post-doctoral training with Dr Liz Anderson in the Clinical Research Department of The Christie, Manchester. I returned to The University of Manchester as a Cancer Research UK Research Fellow in 2001, becoming a Group Leader in the Division of Cancer Studies based at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research.  I am currently a Reader in Breast Biology leading the Breast Cancer Now Research Unit and Director of the Manchester Breast Centre at the Division of Molecular and Clinical Cancer Sciences, University of Manchester.

Collaborators and affiliated staff

Lab staff

  • Kath Spence, BSc - Breast Cancer Now-funded Senior Scientific Officer
  • Ahmet Ucar, PhD - Breast Cancer Now-funded Senior Postdoctoral Research Associate
  • Rachel Eyre, PhD - Breast Cancer Now-funded Postdoctoral Research Associate
  • Bruno Simões, PhD - Breast Cancer Now-funded Postdoctoral Research Associate
  • Denis Alférez, PhD - Breast Cancer Now-funded Postdoctoral Research Associate
  • Angélica Santiago Gómez, PhD - Breast Cancer Now-funded Postdoctoral Research Associate
  • Ernestina De Francesco, PhD - AIRC iCARE Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Nathalia Serna, PhD - Mexican NCST Postdoctoral Fellow
  • Mark James, PhD - Honorary Postdoctoral Research Fellow
  • Aida Sarmiento Castro, BSc - MRC-funded PhD Student
  • Kirsten Garner, BSc - Breast Cancer Now-funded PhD Student
  • Alice Greenalgh, BSc - BBSRC-funded PhD Student (co-supervised with Sacha Howell)
  • Vanessa Clay, MBChB (Hons) and MRCP - MCRC-funded Clinical Fellow and PhD Student (co-supervised with Robert Hawkins)
  • Aoife Kilgallon, BSc - MRC-funded PhD Student (co-supervised with Robert Hawkins)
  • Sarah Kitson, MBChB (Hons) and MRCP - Clinical Fellow and PhD Student (co-supervised with Emma Crosbie)
  • Simon Timbrell, MBChB (Hons) and MRCP - Royal College of Surgeon's-funded Clinical Fellow and PhD Student (co-supervised with Nigel Bundred)
  • Fen Tang, BMed, MBChB - British Council-Chinese Govt.-funded Visiting PhD Student (Jinan University, Guangzhou)
  • Elena Spina, BSc - Visiting PhD Student (University of Calabria, Italy)
  • Ana Lazaro, BSc - Visiting PhD Student (University of Madrid Autonoma)

Memberships of committees and professional bodies

Service on committees

Organising Committee for 7th Annual ‘Targeting Notch in Cancer’ Conference, 14th - 16th June, 2017.

Organising committee for the 9th European Network for Breast Development and Cancer (ENBDC) Workshop, Luzern, Switzerland, March 9th-11th, 2017.


Director (2015- ), Manchester Breast Centre, which comprises 18 basic, translational and clinician scientists active in breast cancer research:

Former President (2012-2014) and Board Member, International Association for Breast Cancer Research

Editorial Board: American Journal of Pathology, Breast Cancer Research and Journal of Mammary Gland Biology and Neoplasia


BSc (Hons), PhD

Research interests

The goal of our research is to understand the hierarchical relationship between cells in breast epithelium in order to gain an insight into the processes that underlie cancer initiation in this tissue. The primary aim, therefore, is to characterise and to understand the regulation of mammary epithelial stem cells since these are likely to be the targets of cancer-initiating events, and may be the underlying tumourigenic cells in breast cancers. We also wish to understand how steroid hormones such as oestrogen regulate this cellular hierarchy since both normal and tumour development is hormone dependent.

Development of the mammary gland involves the formation of collecting ducts and lobules, both of which are bilayered epithelia made up of contractile myo-epithelial and milk-producing luminal cells. One current interest is which of the Notch, Wnt, TGFbeta, EGF pathways and other relevant (eg. cytokines, Prl, GH and ovarian hormones) signalling pathways regulate stem cell self-renewal. We are also exploiting gene expression arrays, methods for functional genomics and proteomics to identify novel pathways that participate in stem cell regulation.

Identification of stem cell self-renewal pathways may be important for future cancer prevention and therapy. An emerging concept is that in leukemia as well as in neural and epithelial cancers, including breast cancer, only a minority of cells, i.e. the “cancer stem cells”, have the capacity to initiate tumours. Characterising the cancer stem cell and understanding the molecular basis for dysregulated self-renewal is crucial for identification of a) targets for effective therapeutic intervention, and b) those cells in micrometastases which can initiate tumours.

A second theme in the lab is breast cancer prevention. We aim to investigate basic breast biology, identify early changes that occur in normal tissues and perform preclinical studies that will provide the rationale for novel prevention trials. 

Overall, our investigations will lead to an increased understanding of the biology of the normal and malignant human breast which, in turn, could lead to the development of new strategies or new targets for breast cancer prevention and therapy.

Latest Publication:

Eyre R, Alferez D, Spence K, Kamal M, Shaw FL, Simoes BM, Santiago-Gomez A, Bramley M, Absar M, Saad Z, Chatterjee S, Kirwan C, Gandhi A, Armstrong AC, Wardley AM, O’Brien CS, Farnie G, Howell SJ and Clarke RB (2016) Patient derived mammosphere and xenograft tumour initiation correlates with progression to metastasis. J Mammary Gland Biology and Neoplasia, available online 28 Sept. OPEN ACCESS


Lectures on Cancer Stem Cells in final year BSc Biology and MSc Oncology courses.

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