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The path of true love (and research) never did run smooth

One of the most fascinating aspects of early-stage cancer research is that you never quite know what the journey will bring. Like the first climb up a mountain, reaching the summit might require a very different route to the one first planned. Science rarely plays along with attempts to travel directly from A to B. I often think the skill of a truly excellent scientist lies in the judgement of when to persist, when to adjust and when to reconsider (over a cup of strong coffee or bottle of wine).

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again

Of course it’s always terrific when research swiftly backs up a new idea. But it can be equally important to discover that an answer is ‘no’. We recently caught up with Professor Catharine West from the University of Manchester. Back in 1995 she received a grant to try to use mutations in key cancer genes to predict which cancer patients would benefit most from radiotherapy.

Professor West tells us that after a lot of blood, sweat and tears, this didn’t work. The connection between the mutations and radiotherapy response turned out not strong enough to be useful.

Undeterred, she reassessed the whole approach and turned instead to using oxygen levels as a way to predict radiotherapy response. This avenue proved much more fruitful, and a clinical trial to improve radiotherapy effectiveness in cancer patients is now underway, nearly 20 years after our grant.

Accept the answer is ‘no’

Sometimes projects yield a lot of negative results that, while valuable, do not result in publications or new ways to help patients. For example in 2010 we awarded a grant to Professor Lambertus Kiemeney at the Max Planck Institute to evaluate the use of a molecule called PCA3 present urine to screen families at a high risk of prostate cancer. Sadly his findings that showed the PC3A is not a valid biomarker for prostate cancer diagnosis but at least we now know this and can rule it out for the future and focus on other molecules.

Expect the unexpected

Sometimes the research journey travels not just to destination B, but to C as well. More recently, Dr Eugenio Montini of the San Raffaele Institute in Milan used his grant to find new gene mutations that can drive liver cancer, by way of ‘trapping’ genes with an engineered virus. The sophisticated techniques developed in this project were then able to be used by a different group in a separate clinical trial. The trial went on to successfully treat three children with a life-shortening genetic disorder; a perfect example of the far-reaching benefits research can bring.

In 2009, Dr Nuria Malats at CNIO (Spanish National Cancer Research Centre) was awarded a grant to study the involvement of trace metals including arsenic, lead and selenium in bladder cancer. By studying toenail clippings (I know, who would have thought it). She observed a protective effect of selenium in bladder cancer risk and pancreatic cancer. She went further and discovered that cadium, arsenic and lead increased a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer.

The cancer research journey

At Worldwide Cancer Research we regularly monitor the grants we award by way of scientific reports. This helps us to ensure researchers are staying on track and are indeed doing the work that we originally agreed to fund but sometimes we just have to be flexible and allow them to adapt, if we didn’t, findings like Nuria Malats on pancreatic cancer might never have been discovered.

As Shakespeare famously wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’ and alas the same is true of research. Occasionally it is disheartening but sometimes, just sometimes, the results and impact can be greater than anyone expected.

Written by Dr Helen Rippon and Dr Lara Bennett

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