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Probing a group of proteins to develop novel ways to detect and treat cancer

The cells in our body produce a group of proteins called Kallikrein-related peptidases, or KLKs for short. It’s known that these proteins play an important role in a variety of biological processes involved in the development and progression of cancer, but researchers currently lack the technology to study KLKs accurately in cancer cells.

Professor Edward Tate, based at Imperial College London, is a chemical biologist who through his career has developed techniques to produce chemical probes to study the activity of proteins within cells. These probes allow scientists to measure how active specific proteins are in cancer cells and use this information to develop new ways to diagnose and treat cancer.

Professor Tate is now developing probes to study the activity of KLKs in prostate, ovarian and pancreatic cancer cells. His team will use their results to identify chemicals that can block KLKs in these cells with the goal to open up new avenues for cancer treatment. They will also test the probes in biological samples from cancer patients to understand if measuring KLKs could be used as a way to more accurately diagnose patients.

Using a tapeworm killer to treat ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer is the 8th most common cancer in women worldwide with nearly 300,000 new cases diagnosed each year. Survival rates have nearly doubled in the last 40 years thanks to more targeted approaches to therapy. Despite these advances, in developed countries such as the UK, only around 35% of women will survive for 10 years or more following diagnosis. Nearly 80% of all deaths from ovarian cancer are caused by an aggressive subtype of the disease called high grade serous ovarian cancer.

Dr Chit Fang Cheok, based at the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Singapore, is testing new use for a drug called niclosamide, commonly used to treat tapeworm infection, to see if it can target high grade serous ovarian cancer cells. Nearly all cases of this ovarian cancer bear a mutation in the p53 gene, which in healthy cells acts as a molecular guardian, protecting the cell from becoming cancerous. Potentially, niclosamide could be effective in eradicating high grade serous ovarian cancer cells that carry a mutant form of p53.


A grandmother from Bedfordshire who battled with cancer for seven years has come face to face with “the man that saved her life”; in an emotional meeting captured on video by Worldwide Cancer Research.

Sandy Tansley (73), from Shefford, endured surgery and countless cycles of gruelling chemotherapy for stage 3 ovarian cancer with no success, and with four tumours spreading to her stomach, the prognosis was not good. After being told she had “nothing to lose”, she was offered the opportunity to take part in a clinical trial for a new targeted treatment drug olaparib, which arose from the work of the British scientist Steve Jackson.

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Two years after starting the trial, the tumours in her stomach had completely disappeared. Today, five years after being given the all clear, Sandy remains in complete remission and with the help of Worldwide Cancer Research, has finally met with Professor Jackson, the man she says she owes her life to.

Sandy Tansley said: “My oncologist suggested I go on the olaparib trial after seven years of living with cancer; the chemotherapy wasn’t working and the disease continued to spread.   Although very frightened to be going on to something completely different, I knew it was my only hope.

“Within 15 months the tumours were showing a sign of shrinkage, a result previously unimagined after what I’d been through. By the end of the second year, they were completely gone, and every scan since has shown remission. To be cancer free after all those years is a dream come true; to be able to watch my grandchildren grow up when I thought I wouldn’t be around - I feel like the luckiest person in the world. I can’t put into words how grateful I am to Steve Jackson - what do you say to the man who saved your life? To get the chance to finally meet the incredible man who has given me my life back and say thank you, means the world.”

Olaparib, under the brand name Lynparza, was developed following two decades of ground-breaking research by Jackson. In his ‘eureka’ moment in the mid 1990’s when using funding from Worldwide Cancer Research, he discovered key proteins that cells use to repair damage to DNA; a major breakthrough Jackson believed could be useful for developing new cancer drugs.

Jackson set up his own company called KuDos to develop these drugs - one of which was olaparib. A decade later, clinical trials of olaparib began across the world, involving a small number of patients in a similar position to Sandy Tansley. The drug has since been granted approval in the UK, the EU and the USA as a targeted therapy for ovarian cancer.

Professor Steve Jackson said: “I don’t tend to think of myself as a life-saver, although if I take a step back for a moment and think about what my research has led to, then I guess I am. Without the funding from Worldwide Cancer Research and other cancer charities, this drug simply would not have been developed. The faith that Worldwide Cancer Research put in me to fund what was, essentially, blue sky research has allowed us to produce something that has the potential to ultimately help millions of people around the world.

“As a cancer scientist, I don’t work in the clinical arena, so don’t come into contact with patients. To be able to meet someone that has benefited from my research, never mind whose life it has actually saved all these years later is very special, and makes everything worthwhile. It is really quite overwhelming to meet Sandy, and is something I will never forget."

Dr Helen Rippon, CEO at Worldwide Cancer Research added:

“Olaparib is a fantastic example of long-term research into experimental drugs that are beginning to bear fruit, not to mention excellence in British science and innovation that Professor Steve Jackson has led.

“It’s this type of research that can make a world-changing discovery, and our ethos at Worldwide Cancer Research in supporting up-and-coming talent as well as world renowned specialists, allows us to support and nurture those researchers that might not always get a break due to lack of funding.”

Research won’t happen without funding. Worldwide Cancer Research relies on public donations - without this dedication and support, the pioneering projects it funds and discovers would simply not happen.

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Targeting molecular ‘hooks’

We are currently funding Dr Patrick Caswell at The University of Manchester to study how targeting molecular ‘hooks’ could possibly work to stop the spread of ovarian cancer. We recently caught up with him to find out how the project is progressing.

Ovarian cancer is the sixth most common cancer in women worldwide. Most patients only start having symptoms at a late stage, after the cancer has spread away from the original tumour site to other organs when it becomes much more difficult to treat successfully. Sadly this means that survival rates after treatment are amongst the lowest when compared to other common cancers and it is often referred to as the silent killer. It is therefore vital to be able to identify ovarian cancer when it first begins and to find new treatments for women in the future.

Dr Caswell explains “Our research findings so far have allowed us to delve into the mechanisms that control the movement of ovarian cancer cells in a physiological environment which mimics what goes on inside a woman.

Cells detect components in the tissue and material that surrounds them using cell surface proteins called integrins as ‘sensors’. Integrins are taken up inside the cell before being recycled back to the cell surface. The recycling of a specific integrin called α5β1 increases the movement of ovarian cancer cells in response to certain components surrounding the cell. It is this increased movement that helps ovarian cancer to spread.

We have uncovered a series of proteins responsible for controlling this recycling of integrin α5β1 from the surface to inside the cell and back again. This knowledge is being used to study samples from patients, with high-grade serous ovarian cancer, the most deadly form. We have also developed 3D systems to study cell growth and movement that more closely mimic the physiological environment experienced in humans to support ovarian cancer spread.

Our investigations into integrins and related proteins in human samples are ongoing, and we hope they will reveal specific proteins that are involved in ovarian cancer spread. We will then ‘interfere’ with these proteins in our 3D systems by switching them on or off and seeing what effect that has on cell growth and movement. This will help us to identify new drug targets and understand how to treat ovarian cancer patients more effectively in the future.”

Longer-term treatment with olaparib can maintain quality of life and stop cancer progressing

AstraZeneca has today reported that the drug olaparib (Lynparza), which Worldwide Cancer Research played a key role in developing, can be used as part of a maintenance programme to ensure women maintain their quality of life, with few side effects, throughout their treatment. These findings were presented today at the 2017 ASCO Annual Meeting in Chicago, US taking place from 2-6 June 2017.

The SOLO-2 phase III clinical trial was open to women with BRCA-mutated, platinum-sensitive serous ovarian cancer which had relapsed. The women received 300mg, which equates to 4 tablets, of olaparib, twice a day as part of a maintenance programme. This new tablet form of the drug is significantly less than the 16 capsules a day which is currently prescribed.

The olaparib maintenance programme significantly prolonged the amount of time the women had before the disease progressed, eliminated symptoms of the disease and had low levels of toxicity for up to 27 months after they began taking the drugs. On three separate rating scales (functional, physical well-being and symptoms), women reported a similar quality of life to those taking the placebo which means that the drug had very few side effects. This means that women are more likely continue with their treatment, unlike with traditional chemotherapy drugs where prolonging life often comes at the price of a reduced quality of life, meaning women tend not to continue with the treatment.

Dr Lara Bennett from Worldwide Cancer Research said: "This is extremely exciting, and fantastic news for these women, as it means the drug not only prolongs their life but ensures that it is a good quality of life. It also consolidates our belief that funding discovery stage research, at the start of the drug development journey is vital. Without our research grants to Professor Steve Jackson almost 20 years ago to study DNA repair, this drug might never have been developed. It was Professor Jackson who believed that targeting a DNA repair weakness in cancer cells had the potential to lead to a new generation of cancer drugs and now we can see that he was right."

Read more about our role in helping kick start the development of olaparib here.

About SOLO-2

SOLO-2 was a Phase III, randomised, double-blind, multicentre trial designed to investigate the efficacy of olaparib tablets as a maintenance monotherapy compared with placebo, in patients with platinum-sensitive relapsed gBRCA-mutated ovarian cancer. The trial, conducted in collaboration with the European Network for Gynaecological Oncological Trial Groups (ENGOT) and Groupe d’Investigateurs National pour l’Etude des Cancers de l’Ovaire et du sein (GINECO), randomised 295 patients with documented germline BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations who had received at least two prior lines of platinum-based chemotherapy and were in complete or partial response to their most recent regimen. Eligible patients were randomised to receive either olaparib tablets (300mg twice daily) or placebo.

Ovarian Cancer

Worldwide, ovarian cancer is the 7th most-commonly diagnosed cancer and the 8th most common cause of cancer death in women. The risk of developing ovarian cancer is increased in women with specific inherited genetic abnormalities, including BRCA mutations.

About olaparib (Lynparza)

Olaparib (Lynparza) is an innovative, first-in-class oral poly ADP-ribose polymerase (PARP) inhibitor that may exploit tumour DNA damage response (DDR) pathway deficiencies to preferentially kill cancer cells. It is approved by regulatory authorities in the EU and US for the treatment of women with BRCA mutated ovarian cancer.



  1. Friedlander M., et al. Relationship of health-related quality of life (HRQOL) and   patient-centered outcomes with the clinical outcomes with olaparib maintenance following chemotherapy in patients with germline (g) BRCA-mutated (m) platinum-sensitive relapsed serous ovarian cancer (PSR SOC): SOLO2 phase III trial. Presented at the American Society of Clinica Oncology (ASCO), June 2-6, 2017. Chicago, Illinois, US.

Olaparib approved for use in Scotland

This week the drug olaparib (also known as Lynparza) was approved for use in Scotland for women with ovarian cancer by the Scottish Medicine’s Consortium. Scottish charity Worldwide Cancer Research funded work which kick-started the development of this drug over 20 years ago.

Trials have shown the drug, can allow patients, who are often young women, with advanced ovarian cancer to live for an average of 7 months longer compared to standard treatments. Olaparib has already been approved for use in the USA and in Europe. It was also approved last year by NICE for use in England.

The journey started in in 1995 Worldwide Cancer Research (which was known as AICR at the time), based in St Andrews, Fife gave funding to Professor Steve Jackson at the University of Cambridge for a series of projects studying DNA repair. He used findings from these projects, along with others, to set up a company called KuDOS Pharmaceuticals Ltd.  KuDOS went on to develop olaparib, a drug targeting DNA repair. KuDOS was taken over by AstraZeneca in 2005, at which point AstraZeneca took over testing of the drug.

Later in the mid 2000’s the charity then funded Professor Alan Clarke, who’s work supported the case for using olaparib in cancers with BRCA mutations and helped olaparib on its way to clinical trials in patients.

Dr Lara Bennett, Science Communications Manager for Worldwide Cancer Research, commented: "As a charity based in Scotland, we’re proud to say that people giving locally has allowed us to make a local impact for cancer patients.

Ovarian cancer lags behind other cancers when it comes to the availability of modern, targeted treatments, and the prognosis for women diagnosed with ovarian cancer is often poor. All cancer patients should be able to benefit from the most advanced treatments medicine has to offer. That’s why it’s essential we keep supporting and funding early research for the future so we can develop the treatments we need. We are relieved that olaparib will finally be available for patients in Scotland."

Olaparib is in clinical trials for a wide range of other cancer types including breast and pancreatic cancer.  Worldwide Cancer Research continues to be involved in the drug and is funding work looking at how to stop patients becoming resistant to the treatment.

(Image source: AstraZeneca PLC)

Developing a new treatment for ovarian cancer

Dr Alice Soragni and her team in the US are testing a new drug which could help treat ovarian cancer.

Around 20 new cases of ovarian cancer are diagnosed in the UK every day. The majority of women are diagnosed with an aggressive, hard to treat form of the disease called high-grade serous ovarian carcinoma (HGSOC). With this type of cancer, as with many other tumours, an important cancer-protecting protein called p53 has been deactivated. p53 is often called ‘the guardian of the genome’ for its important role in protecting DNA and stopping normal cells from transforming into cancer cells.

Mutations are a very common cause of p53 deactivation in HGSOC. The mutations can cause p53 proteins to clump together, which prevents p53 from working correctly, and favours cancer progression.

Dr Soragni has developed a new prototype drug, ReACp53, which stops p53 proteins sticking together and helps them stay functional.

“Our experimental data so far suggest this new type of drug might help reactivate p53 function and eliminate cancer cells,” explains Dr Soragni. “We now want to test if ReACp53 might be effective against the very first cells which initiate cancer in the body, called cancer stem cells.”

Cancer stem cells are usually resistant to chemotherapy. They can divide and grow into more cancer cells indefinitely, and are involved in cancer initiation, recurrence after treatment, and spreading to distant parts of the body (metastasis).

“In this project we will test ReACp53 in combination with standard chemotherapy drugs or other novel drugs in the lab to find out how to make this new therapy as effective as possible,” says Dr Soragni.

“Unfortunately the majority of women diagnosed with this aggressive cancer still succumb to the disease. The support of the Worldwide Cancer Research grant will be instrumental in helping us develop ReACp53 into a new approach for the treatment of HGSOC.”

Understanding why chemotherapy drugs stop working in ovarian cancer patients

Worldwide, there are more than 204,000 new cases of ovarian cancer diagnosed each year. The most common treatment for ovarian cancer is surgery followed by chemotherapy using drugs that contain the metal platinum. There are several different types of ovarian cancer and one of the most common is called serous. About three quarters of patients with serous ovarian cancer normally respond well to their first chemotherapy treatments but many women with advanced forms of the disease find the cancer returns after months or even years. When the cancer recurs women are then given the chemotherapy again but in many cases the drugs no longer work as the cancer has become resistant and so develops further. Sadly many women with serous cancer will die several years from the date they were initially diagnosed. The reasons why the cancers become resistant to treatment are poorly understood and they are the focus of Professor Bowtell's Worldwide Cancer Research grant. Using samples from ovarian cancer patients collected before and after treatment he has found a gene which he believes could play a role in this resistance to the drugs and he is now working to understand how it may do this.

Targeting molecular hooks to stop the spread of ovarian cancer

Ovarian cancer (cancer of the ovaries) is the 7th most common cancer in women worldwide and the 5th most common cancer in women in the UK. Unfortunately, many women who develop ovarian cancer are not diagnosed until the cancer has already spread. This means that the survival rates for patients with this type of cancer are low compared to other common cancers.

Dr Caswell is interested in integrins, a family of molecules which act like tiny hooks. They stick out from the cell surface and anchor the cell to its physical surroundings (a bit like Velcro). Integrins are constantly being ‘recycled’; moved inside the cell and then back out to the surface again. This helps control the number of integrins at the cell surface, and the movement of the cell through its surroundings. The role of integrins in cancer is complex.

With his grant from Worldwide Cancer Research, Dr Caswell is studying the recycling patterns of one particular integrin which has been linked to ovarian cancer. He wants to find out exactly how it affects the movement of cancer cells through a 3D environment in the lab, similar to how they might spread in the body. By doing so, he hopes to reveal new ways of targeting drugs to stop the spread of ovarian cancer.

Building a cancer-killing virus

Professor Elliott is developing a virus which can target and kill ovarian cancer cells.

Over 4,000 women die from ovarian cancer in the UK each year*. Unfortunately, many patients are not identified until the disease is very advanced. Although improving, survival over 10 years remains low compared to many other cancers.

One exciting new approach to treating cancers is the development of special viruses to destroy cancer cells while leaving normal, healthy cells alone.

“Other groups have carried out clinical trials of these cancer-killing viruses, showing them to be promising treatments,” says Professor Elliott, “however, one major hurdle is their failure to spread through the whole of a solid tumour- sometimes there is just too much tumour.”

“This is where we come in. Using our knowledge of HSV biology, we want to discover ways of altering the virus so it will spread much faster between cancer cells.”

Professor Elliott and her team are focusing on the herpes simplex virus (HSV), which normally causes minor symptoms such as the cold sore, but which in its cancer-killing form has already been trialed for a range of cancers.

“Our ultimate goal is to build a virus with all the necessary properties needed for destroying cancer. That is, it will only infect cancer cells not healthy cells, it is easy to track and importantly it will spread rapidly through the cells,” says Professor Elliott.

* Latest statistics from Cancer Research UK