The path of true love (and research) never did run smooth
This will be an introduction
One of the most fascinating aspects of early-stage cancer research is that you never quite know what the journey will bring. 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.
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 and use mutations in key cancer genes to predict which cancer patients would benefit most from radiotherapy.
Professor West tells us that this didn’t work. The connection between the mutations and radiotherapy response turned out not strong enough to be useful.
Undeterred, after our funding had ended 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.
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 was awarded a grant to study the involvement of trace metals including arsenic, lead and selenium in bladder cancer. By studying toenail clippings, she observed a protective effect of selenium in bladder cancer risk and pancreatic cancer. She also found that cadium, arsenic and lead increased a person’s risk of pancreatic cancer.
These are just a couple of examples of where research into one cancer type has yielded results that increases our understanding of another cancer type. In fact the vast majority of the work we fund is very fundamental and can often benefit of a whole range of cancer types.
As Shakespeare famously wrote in A Midsummer Night’s Dream ‘The course of true love never did run smooth’ and the same is true of research. Occasionally it is disheartening but sometimes, just sometimes, the results and impact can be greater than anyone expected.