Birmingham scientists set to take on cancer 'grand challenge'

grand-challenge-bannerUniversity of Birmingham scientists are set to benefit from one of the biggest funding grants ever awarded by Cancer Research UK in the hope of sparing thousands of women unnecessary treatment.

Researchers at the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit at the University of Birmingham are set to receive around £2 million as part of a £15 million investment by the charity.

The funding for the ground-breaking research will come from the first Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge awards, which were set up to help scientists tackle some of the hardest unanswered questions in cancer research and to revolutionise the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

The Birmingham researchers are part of a global team that involves scientists in the Netherlands and the US, who beat stiff international competition to secure the five-year funding. This funding was made possible by a partnership between Cancer Research UK and the Dutch Cancer Society.

Their project was selected by an international panel of experts from a shortlist of nine exceptional, multi-disciplinary collaborations from universities, institutes and industry across the globe.

Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Cancer Research UK set up Grand Challenge to bring a renewed focus and energy to the fight against cancer. We want to shine a light on the toughest questions that stand in the way of progress.

“We’re incredibly excited to be able to support these teams as they help us achieve our ambition. Cancer is a global problem, and these projects are part of the global solution. Together, we will redefine cancer – turning it from a disease that so many people die from, to one that many people can live with. We will reduce the number of people worldwide affected by cancer and achieve our goal of beating cancer sooner.”grand-challenge-infographic

Preventing unnecessary breast cancer treatment

The research will focus on a condition called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) which can sometimes develop into breast cancer. The condition means that some of the cells lining the breast ducts have started to become abnormal. It affects more than 6,300 women in the UK each year, and thousands more worldwide.

Right now, doctors can’t tell whether women with DCIS will go on to develop breast cancer. This means that women diagnosed with DCIS are recommended to undergo surgery, and may also have radiotherapy or hormone therapy. We know that some women do not need this treatment which is stressful, painful and has lifelong physical consequences, and may cause stress and anxiety.

Recent research into the overtreatment of DCIS at the University of Birmingham has been driven by Professor Adele Francis.

Together with the University of Birmingham and a team of UK experts, Professor Francis devised a clinical trial, called LORIS, where women with a particular type of DCIS either have surgery or are actively monitored with an annual mammogram. This trial is ongoing.

Professor Francis passed away in January 2017 but the successful Grand Challenge bid has been hailed as an important legacy for future generations. Her work with the University of Birmingham is now being led by her colleague, Professor Daniel Rea.

An international approach

Professors Francis and Rea were part of the international group that secured funding for the PRECISION project, which is led by Dr Jelle Wesseling at Netherlands Cancer Institute. The project aims to identify a way to predict which women with DCIS will develop breast cancer by studying tissue and blood samples from women with the condition.

DCIS clinical trials such as LORIS at the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit at the University of Birmingham and similar studies in the Netherlands and US will be a key part of the project.

Professor Rea, Deputy Director at the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit, said: “We are delighted to be part of the Grand Challenge PRECISION project. It has brought together doctors and scientists from the UK, Europe and the USA with an interest in DCIS and breast cancer.

“We will work together to develop an understanding of what makes a pre-invasive disease in the breast called DCIS turn into invasive cancer. We will then be able to better advise women with DCIS if it is safe to avoid surgery or if surgery is necessary to reduce the chances of breast cancer developing.

“The whole PRECISION team is determined to succeed and provide a lasting legacy to Professor Francis’s pioneering work in this field.”

Dr Jelle Wesseling added: “I’m very excited and honoured to be part of the Grand Challenge PRECISION project. My team believes the research we are embarking on will transform the lives of countless women around the world.

“Because doctors don’t know which women have DCIS that could develop into breast cancer and be dangerous, they often treat women just in case, when it may not be necessary.

“In our project we will study thousands of tissue samples taken from women with DCIS during surgery in great detail, to understand which are low-and high-risk and help doctors to make more informed decisions about treatment.”

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