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Charles Swanton, MBBS, PhD, FRCP, FMedSci, FRS

The Francis Crick Institute
London, United Kingdom

Titles and Affiliations

Principal Investigator
Francis Crick Institute & UCL Cancer Institute, Cancer Evolution and Genome Instability
Director, Cancer Research UK Lung Cancer Centre of Excellence London
Chair, Personalized Medicine
Consultant Thoracic Oncologist
UCLH Hospitals

Research area

Exploring the biological underpinnings of how environmental risk factors permit breast cancer initiation and may reveal novel therapeutic targets.


Cancer cells are able to survive and flourish in an environment where the supply of nutrients and oxygen is very poor. A tumor and its surrounding environment function as an ecosystem where different components interact with each other to ensure cell survival and proliferation. The tumor microenvironment influences inflammation that occurs in response to different stimuli such as pathogens, chemicals, reduced oxygen, and nutrient supply. In turn, inflammation plays an important role in tumor initiation and progression. The work of Dr. Swanton and others has demonstrated that environmental carcinogens such as air pollution can alter the tumor environment and mobilize pre-existing inactive cells in healthy tissue to initiate tumor formation. Since air pollution has been associated with increased risk of breast cancer in women with a known familial breast cancer predisposition, Dr. Swanton and his colleagues are characterizing the components of air pollution to determine those that mediate this response.

What’s Next

Dr. Swanton found that when macrophages, a type of immune cell, are exposed to air pollutants they promote inflammation that drives tumor initiation. His team is analyzing the impact of a panel of drugs and inhibitors on the inflammatory process and evaluating their role in this process. Results of these studies will increase our understanding of the impact of air pollution on the risk of breast cancer in women with high familial risk. Recent studies in breast tumors have identified small, circular DNA containing genes outside of their normal linear location and shown their occurrence to be associated with more aggressive tumors as well as treatment resistance. The presence of circular DNA can be used to isolate a subset of cells within tumors that survive under conditions, such as low nutrient or oxygen supply, that are detrimental to normal cells. Dr. Swanton and his colleagues will leverage the uniqueness of circular DNA to investigate how they allow a subset of cancer cells to flourish in unfavorable growth conditions.


Charles Swanton, MD PhD completed his training in 1999 at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund Laboratories and the Cancer Research UK clinician scientist/medical oncology training program in 2008. Dr. Swanton runs the Cancer Evolution and Genome Instability Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute and combines his research with clinical duties at UCLH, focused on how tumors evolve over space and time. His research focuses on branched evolutionary histories of solid tumors, processes that drive cancer cell-to-cell variation in the form of new cancer mutations or chromosomal instabilities, and the impact of such cancer diversity on effective immune surveillance and clinical outcome.

Dr. Swanton was appointed to several prestigious societies: Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians in April 2011; Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2015; Napier Professor in Cancer by the Royal Society in 2016; Cancer Research UK’s Chief Clinician in 2017; and elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 2018. He has been awarded several prizes including the Stand up to Cancer Translational Cancer Research Prize (2015), Glaxo Smith Kline Biochemical Society Prize (2016), and the San Salvatore Prize for Cancer Research (2017).

He has also received several honors; the Ellison-Cliffe Medal; election into the Royal Society of Medicine (2017); the Gordon Hamilton Fairley Medal (2018); and the ESMO Award for Translational Cancer Research (2019). More recently, he received the UCL Hospitals Celebrating Excellence Award for contribution to world class research (2022) and, in 2021, received the Memorial Sloan Kettering Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research, the Weizmann Institute Sergio Lombroso Award in Cancer Research, and the International Society of Liquid Biopsy Research Award.

BCRF Investigator Since