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Worldwide Cancer Research findings presented to House of Commons

A PhD student funded by Worldwide Cancer Research at the University of Hertfordshire has this week displayed her research at the House of Commons.

Deborah Ogbeni was selected along with 175 other finalists from over 500 entries across the country to share her research into identifying a potential new treatment for pancreatic cancer. The event was organised by STEM as part of British Science Week.

Her work, an extension of a project initiated by Dr Stewart Kirton and Dr Sharon Rossiter at the University of Hertfordshire and Dr Tatjana Crnogorac-Jurcevic at Queen Mary University London, was funded by the charity Worldwide Cancer Research to investigate treatments for this form of cancer.

Deborah’s research has identified lead compounds that could be developed as a suitable drug to prevent the spread of cancer. Further research is needed, but the drug has the potential to both slow down the progression of pancreatic cancer and make it more vulnerable to chemotherapy.

Deborah said:

“It was an honour to be able to showcase my research at such a prestigious event. I am excited to think that this research could one day improve the treatment potential and life chances of people with pancreatic cancer.”

STEM for Britain is a national competition which aims to raise the profile of Britain's early-stage researchers at Westminster by engaging Members of both Houses of Parliament with current science, engineering and mathematics research being undertaken in the UK. Deborah’s research was part of the Biological and Biomedical Science session and MPs attended to view the range of ground breaking research being carried out in their constituencies.   

Dr Lara Bennett, Science Communications Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research, commented “It is great that Deborah’s project was so successful in identifying potential new cancer drugs for pancreatic cancer. The survival rate for this type of cancer is still extremely low and has not improved much since the 1970s so new treatments are urgently needed. It is a great achievement for Deborah to present her findings in parliament and an experience I am sure she will always remember.”

Boosting immunotherapy treatments to treat pancreatic cancer

Dr Li Wang in the US is developing a new type of ‘cancer vaccine’ immunotherapy treatment for pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer is often resistant to standard radiation and chemotherapy, and is still very hard to treat in many patients. Immunotherapy treatments, which involve training the body’s own immune system to fight against cancer are already doing well in a number of cancer clinical trials, but not yet against pancreatic cancer.

Dr Wang and her team think they might have found a way to enhance one particular type of upcoming cancer vaccine immunotherapy, to make it effective against pancreatic cancer.

“Antibodies which block a set of cell proteins called immune checkpoint proteins have become the breakthrough therapies for late-stage melanoma patients,” says Dr Wang. “However, the same treatment has so far failed to bring survival benefits for pancreatic cancer patients.”

“In my lab we have recently identified a type of immune checkpoint protein which early tests suggest might be linked to pancreatic tumour growth. We now want to investigate further whether blocking this new protein will help enhance the effectiveness of the cancer vaccine immunotherapy treatment against pancreatic cancer.”

In this project the researchers will carry out a number of tests in the lab to understand exactly how this method works against tumours, and find out how effective blocking the new protein might be.

“Ultimately we hope this new work will help us begin to formulate and test a brand new therapy for patients with pancreatic cancer,” says Dr Wang.

Testing a dual combination therapy for pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is a devastating disease. Less than 1% of people diagnosed survive for more than ten years, which is the same as it was back in the 1970s. Professor Hodivala-Dilke explains “Where surgery is not a possibility, chemotherapy is given, but often, toxic side effects mean that treatment has to be stopped. Pancreatic cancer has several specific features that make it particularly difficult to treat. These include the fact that they have a poor blood supply, which means that the much of the chemotherapy that we treat the tumour with never even reaches it. In addition, pancreatic cancers can have complex genetic mutations that can alter therapy responses.

To overcome this, with the help of a previous Worldwide Cancer Research grant, we have developed a dual action treatment strategy. It can improve the delivery of Gemcitabine (a chemotherapy often given to patients) to pancreatic cancer with mutations in a subset of genes. It also helps the Gemcitabine work more effectively in the cancer cells so that we can reduce its dose and therefore reduce side effects, whilst still improving survival. With this latest grant we are aiming to extend these studies to pancreatic cancer with other genetic mutations and investigate whether this strategy can improve the effect of other commonly used chemotherapies.

Our data will provide new information that will help us to treat pancreatic cancer better, hopefully in the not too distant future.”

New year, new research

We support research into all cancer types and this latest grant round was no exception. The projects contain a good mix of cancer types from mouth and lip to breast, lung, pancreatic, lymphoma and liver cancer to name but a few. And of course a large amount is being spent on understanding the very fundamental principles behind how our cells behave and what goes wrong in cancer. Keeping with our ethos of supporting the best research around the globe, the projects are taking place all over the world including England, Portugal, Greece, Spain, Australia, The Netherlands, France, Germany, USA and Canada.

Opening up about mouth cancer

Some of the projects that most excite us are Dr Guy Lyons from the University of Sydney, Australia. He is identifying genetic changes that occur when mouth cancer starts so that it can be diagnosed early, when treatment is more likely to be successful. You can read more about mouth cancer in our recent blog. Dr Lyons told us “The support of organisations such as Worldwide Cancer Research for research into the fundamental biology of cancer is essential for the discovery of new paradigms that enable new approaches in the clinic down the track.”

Developing new ‘super cameras’

Professor Carolyn Moores at Birkbeck University of London in England is developing state of the art electron microscopy to actually visualise where drugs bind (stick) to their target molecules inside the cancer cells. This is VERY cool.  She said “Revolutionary new imaging technology means that our pictures will provide unprecedented detail, from which we will calculate the three-dimensional shape of our samples. This technique could potentially revolutionise the way drug discovery is carried out and our findings could be used to design specific drugs that can be further developed to improve treatments for cancers in the future. It is an exciting time to be an electron microscopist and we are thrilled that Worldwide Cancer Research is supporting our research in this area.”

Studying ‘bubbles’ to beating childhood brain cancer

We are also funding Dr Kasper Rouschop at Maastricht University in The Netherlands (pictured above) who is studying how ‘bubbles’ released by glioblastoma tumours encourage blood vessels to grow into the tumour. Glioblastoma’s are a type of brain tumour that commonly effects.  He told us “We anticipate that the results of this research will enable us to evaluate whether targeting these particular bubbles could be a potential new way to reduce the growth of brain tumours.  Our approach is highly innovative and is based on our previous identification of “bubbles” that are specifically released by hypoxic tumour cells. Without the support of Worldwide Cancer Research, evaluation of this promising approach would not be possible.”

And last, but by no means marking the end of my list of fab new projects, is Dr Ruben van Boxtel at the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands. He is trying to figure out why cancer arises in some parts of the body more than others. Great question to try to answer!

Our next grant round is already underway and our Scientific Committee will meet in March to decide who gets funded.  But this relies on donations, no money means no research.  If you would like to join team Worldwide Cancer Research and make a donation today just text WORLDWIDE to 70004 to donate £10. Thank you.

Image kindly provided by Dr Kasper Rouchop.

STEM Women in Science Day

Today, 11th February 2016, has been declared the inaugural International Day for Women and Girls in Science.  A day we are embracing here at Worldwide Cancer Research as we are funding almost 50 outstanding female researchers all over the world.

These include Professor Kairbaan (Kebs) Hodivala-Dilke at Barts Cancer Institute in London, England (pictured above) who has just started her grant, testing a dual combination therapy for pancreatic cancer, which she developed with a previous grant from us.  She explains “This dual approach can improve the delivery of Gemcitabine (a chemotherapy often given to patients) to pancreatic cancer with mutations in a subset of genes.  It also helps the Gemcitabine work more effectively in the cancer cells so that we can reduce its dose and therefore reduce side effects, whilst still improving survival.  I want to extend these studies to pancreatic cancer with other genetic mutations and investigate whether this strategy can improve the effect of other commonly used chemotherapies.  I have high hopes that our data will provide new information that will help us to treat pancreatic cancer better, hopefully in the not too distant future.”

We are also funding Dr Kate Sutherland at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research, Australia who is trying to identify what drives lung squamous cell carcinoma. And Dr Eunhee Kim at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre in New York, USA is studying genetic changes in leukaemia.  Dr Kim told us “To me, this project is really exciting because uncovering how certain mutations drive cancer may give rise to opportunities for a new therapeutic approach for leukaemia.”

We are pleased to be funding so many women in science and hope that today raises the awareness that is needed to ensure the next generation of scientists contains even more women.

Designing a new drug against pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic ductal adenocarcinoma (PDAC) is an aggressive cancer that very few people survive from. No effective treatment has been found to treat people with this disease. A protein, called the calcium binding protein S100P, is involved in the growth, survival, movement, and invasion of cells into other tissues. Large amounts of this protein can be found in PDAC, and are also associated with low survival numbers in several other cancers. It may be possible to develop a treatment against PDAC by using S100P.

Dr Rossiter and her team will use their Worldwide Cancer Research grant to find new chemotherapy drugs for pancreatic cancer, which are specifically aimed at attaching to and stopping S100P. This research will combine computer based drug design to better understand the different molecules that drug compounds could potentially attach themselves to, as well as established tests with cancer cells that have the S100P protein. They expect that this will identify the best possible drug compounds for later testing in animal models, which can hopefully be developed into suitable chemotherapy treatments for patients with pancreatic cancer.

Investigating the role of the immune system and inflammation in pancreatic cancer

Worldwide, around 279,000 people were diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2008. Sadly this type of cancer has a poor prognosis. By the time someone has symptoms, goes to their doctor and is diagnosed, the disease is very often quite advanced. Dr Maria Pia Protti is using her Worldwide Cancer Research grant to investigate whether the immune system has a role in inducing or increasing inflammation in pancreatic cancer. To carry out this work she will be using human samples from pancreatic cancer patients.

Genetic targets of pancreatic cancer

Professor Owen Sansom and his team want to find new ways to attack pancreatic cancer.

Pancreatic cancer, which is diagnosed in almost 9,000 new patients in the UK every year*, is one of the hardest cancers to treat. This cancer spreads early, is difficult to remove by surgery, and is often drug resistant. New approaches to treatment are desperately needed.

Professor Sansom is studying a gene, called MYC, which pancreatic cancer cells seem to need to survive. The problem is, healthy cells also rely on this gene. So scientists have to find crafty new ways to make sure any new MYC-targeted therapy would kill only cancer cells, and not normal cells.

This is the ultimate goal for Professor Sansom. But to do this he first must find out exactly why pancreatic cancer cells are so reliant on MYC, and study other genes and proteins which are connected in to the MYC ‘network’.

Professor Sansom said: “There is a lot we still don’t know, but I want to find out if targeting MYC indirectly through one of these other molecules might be a way to get to pancreatic cancer.”

* Latest statistics from Cancer Research UK

Bacteria and pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed late, is hard to treat, and unlike other cancers, survival has improved very little since the 1970s. In the UK alone, 24 people every day are diagnosed with this cancer.*“Pancreatic cancer is a dreadful disease,” says Dr Malats. “And no advances have been made towards its control in the last few decades. We need to know more about how this cancer develops.”

Dr Malats and her team will be studying the role of bacteria, which live inside us all, and whether they could be a factor in development of pancreatic cancer. She explains why: “Earlier studies have linked the development of pancreatic cancer with chronic, long-term, inflammation, and bacterial organisms living in the human body can sometimes cause chronic inflammation. It is imperative we assess inflammatory-related factors like bacteria and their association with pancreatic cancer”.

The team will compare bacteria in saliva and stool samples from patients with pancreatic cancer to those from patients who do not have cancer. They hope this will reveal if there is any association between these bacteria and the risk of developing pancreatic cancer.

“I hope this work will help increase our knowledge about what can alter a person’s risk of developing pancreatic cancer,” says Dr Malats. “This in turn could help in us to find new and effective ways to prevent this disease.”

* Latest statistics from Cancer Research UK

Pancreatic and lung cancer patients need your help

November is lung and pancreatic cancer awareness month, both of which are diagnosed late and have low survival rates, meaning more research is urgently needed.

How common are these cancers?

Worldwide, nearly 1.83 million new cases of lung cancer (the same as the entire population of Vienna, Austria) and 338,000 new cases of pancreatic cancer (the population of Leicester, England.) were estimated to have been diagnosed in 2012.

How many people survive lung and pancreatic cancer?

That same year, around 1.59 million people were estimated to have died from lung cancer and around 330,000 died from pancreatic cancer.  These shocking figures highlight just how few people survive these terrible cancers.  In fact survival rates for both of these cancers have actually not shown much improvement since the 1970s.

We are doing all we can to change that. Read about our work on lung cancer in our previous blog post  or search for lung cancer projects on our interactive world map.

Progress urgently needed for people with pancreatic cancer 

Dr Núria Malats in Spain told us “Pancreatic cancer is a dreadful disease and no advances have been made towards its control in the last few decades. We need to know more about how this cancer develops.”

She is currently investigating the role of bacteria, which live inside us all, and whether they could be a factor in the development of pancreatic cancer.

We are also trying to tackle pancreatic cancer in other ways, including Professor Owen Sansom in Scotland who aims to find new ways to attack the disease. And Dr Sharon Rossiter in England is using computer-based drug design to find potential new treatments.

To help us stop cancer cutting lives short, please to text WORLDWIDE to 70004 to donate £10.

Further information

Search all of our cancer projects here.