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The Olympics may be ending, but the victories in research continue

We’ve all been glued to our TV screens this month, as some of the finest world athletes gathered in Rio for the Olympic Games. As we watch individuals triumph against all odds, at Worldwide Cancer Research we’ve taken a look back into the archives to remember some of the victories from our scientists in their labs across the world.

United Kingdom: success on the track, success in the lab.

Team GB cyclists have stormed to success on the track, winning an amazing seven medals. These victories are partly due to their dedicated coaching team and training programme, which is based at Manchester’s velodrome. Manchester is also where a group of Worldwide Cancer Research funded scientists, led by Dr Cathy Tournier, have made significant progress of their own, not on the track this time, but in the lab. The team there are trying to understand inflammation-driven cancers. Inflammation, as one of the body’s main response mechanisms, is essential to help wounds heal and clear infections. Sometimes inflammation can persist for longer than is necessary, and become a major risk factor for many types of disease, including cancer.

Dr Tournier and her team have been studying the activity of the ERK5 molecule in mice models with inflammation-driven skin cancer. The molecule acts like a ‘distress beacon’ to draw immune cells towards damaged cells, allowing them to survive and continue to divide, and so initiating the development of cancer. The team also found evidence to suggest that blocking ERK5 from sending out these distress signals could slow not only skin tumour development, but could also boost the action of the chemotherapy drug doxorubicin to help treat the cancer. This provides a promising opportunity for developing a novel skin cancer treatment to make existing chemotherapy-based programmes more effective.

Team GB would train in Manchester where we fund fantastic science.

Team GB trained in Manchester where we fund Dr Tournier’s team.

Australia: diving into clinical trials.

Australia has proved to be a dominant force in the Olympic pool with a strong team of swimmers including 18-year old Kyle Chalmers, and quadruple-medal winning Emma McKeon, claiming a total of 10 medals across the 32 events. But whilst the athletes have been clocking up their lengths, David Vaux and his team at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne have been hard at work developing a set of treatments capable of dealing with triple-negative breast cancer. This refers to the group of tumours (accounting for around 15-20% of overall cases of breast cancer), which lack the hormone receptors targeted by traditional treatment options. Despite constant improvements to breast cancer prognosis rates, these triple-negative tumours present as a stumbling block for doctors and scientists, with chemotherapy remaining the mainstay treatment option. Professor Vaux and his team have found a possible alternative to this in the targeted drug called birinapant, having had success in preliminary trials. They are now looking to build on their work by using a mouse model to simulate treatment in human breast tissue, and to optimize its effectiveness by trialing it in combination with other drugs.

Whilst this research is an exciting step forward, it represents only a small fraction of our work in the field of triple-negative breast cancer. We have funded scientists tackling the problem from a number of angles, from those repurposing anti-parasite drugs commonly used to treat river blindness, to those working at the genetic level to better our understanding of the mechanisms driving triple-negative cancer development.

David Vaux And Najoua Lalaoui 800 X 400

Professor Vaux and Dr Lalaoui are testing a new type of drug for triple negative breast cancer

The Netherlands: getting the research balance right.

Sanne Wavers made history as she beat favourite Simone Biles to win the first ever individual gymnastics gold for the Netherlands in Monday’s nail-biting beam final. Professor van den Heuvel, working at the University of Utrecht, is also achieving gold standard success as he works to uncover why genes called ‘SWI/SWF’ can cause cancer, a relatively understudied area of research. He is using tiny worms called C. elegans, whose cellular processes are similar to that of a human, to find out the exact function of the SWI/SWF genes in cell division and specialization. He wants to identify ways to stop potentially cancerous cells from dividing when SWI/SWF genes fail, which could prevent cancer from occurring in the first place. Studying using these worms have helped scientists to understand the biology of cancer cells, including the elusive process of metastasis- the process by which tumour cells can spread to other parts of the body.

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Sanne Wevers triumphs on the beam.

Italy: shooting for gold.

Italy is top of the leaderboard in shooting events, with four of their eight gold medals so far earned at the range. But the athletes had better hold on to their gold medals, as the metal may soon be in short supply if Dr Flavio Curnis and his colleagues in Milan have anything to do with it. New data published by the team shows that gold nanoparticles could help to boost the effectiveness of a prototype cancer therapy called Cykotine.

The team showed that when gold particles were attached to the drug, they escaped through holes in tumour blood vessels, accumulating both in and around the tumour. This resulted in a higher quantity of the drug remaining in the surrounding environment, whilst minimizing the amount able to damage healthy cells elsewhere. By optimizing the effectiveness of the drug in this way, this would mean that lower doses could be used, likely leading to fewer unwanted side-effects.

There is a rising body of evidence to support the use of such ‘nanotechnologies’ in cancer treatments, with their strong potential to vastly increase the efficacy of drugs, whilst reducing harmful side effects. A number of Worldwide Cancer Research funded scientists are currently utilizing these particles across a wide range of applications, from improving the efficiency of radiotherapy treatment, to disrupting skin cancer cells.

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Fantastic efforts from team Italy.

So as the games come to a close, and the athletes return to their home countries, it’s great to know that our team of scientists are continuing their fantastic research in 21 different countries. In fact, somewhere in the world 24 hours a day, there is a scientist funded Worldwide Cancer Research working in a lab.

Like the athletes competing in the Olympic Games, we think cancer research requires teamwork and co-operation, which is why we encourage the scientific community to openly communicate their ideas and findings to help improve the future for cancer patients everywhere.

Who knows what discoveries our scientists will have made by the time we get to the games in Tokyo in four years?

Images courtesy of Pixabay.com and the Telegraph.co.uk

Communications Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research

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