Taking up the gauntlet

Views & Analysis
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Charities and not-for-profit organisations are working hard to answer some of the hardest questions around how to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. Cancer Research UK is at the forefront, with its Grand Challenge awards programme and backing from its subsidiary commercialisation arm, Cancer Research Technology, encouraging multi-disciplined, international teams to address the issues and support them financially.

Here is a summary of an in-depth article from pharmaphorum’s Deep Dive: Oncology magazine, in which Linda Banks examines some of the latest research projects, involving a ‘Google Earth’-style approach to tumours, DNA ‘fingerprints’, virtual reality, predictive models and RAS proteins.

Grand Challenge awards

In 2015 Cancer Research UK launched its Grand Challenge proposal to define and then tackle the big questions that it believes will combat cancer. The result in 2017 is that four teams of scientists have been awarded a share of over £70 million over the next five years to help them progress their winning projects. These winning programmes were selected from a total of 57 proposals submitted to a panel of international experts and patient representatives.

'Google Earth' for tumours

A team of UK and US scientists, led by Dr Josephine Bunch of the National Physical Laboratory in London, will receive £16 million to progress the use of mass spectrometry imaging to map different tumours in minute detail. This technology can measure all the molecules inside tissues and cells to create a full picture of the tumour.

Initially, the researchers will focus on mapping individual breast, bowel, pancreatic and brain tumours as the results of their studies of these cancers are most likely to benefit patients fastest.

Computerised 3D technology

In parallel with Dr Bunch’s project, Professor Greg Hannon of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, will be leading another international team to investigate the composition of tumours with Grand Challenge funding of £20 million. Scientists, computer experts and virtual reality (VR) developers from the UK, Canada, Switzerland, US and Ireland are set to build computerised 3D tumours from real samples. These can then be studied using VR to show every different cell in the tumour.

DNA 'fingerprints'

In an epic project spanning five continents, scientists from the UK, France and the US will investigate the causes of damage to DNA, which can increase the risk of cancer.

Led by Professor Sir Mike Stratton from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, this team will study the mutational ‘fingerprints’ which form distinctive patterns that are unique to the cause of the damage.

Around 50 such fingerprints have been found to have links to cancer, but the causes of about half of them are unknown. The researchers will use their £20 million allocation to study the biology of fingerprints in 5,000 samples from pancreatic, kidney, oesophageal and bowel cancer with the aim of finding their causes.

Read the full article, featuring several further cancer research studies, in Deep Dive: Oncology here.

Coming soon: Deep Dive: Future Pharma. Read more and register for your complimentary copy here.

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Linda Banks