Oxford to Pioneer Precision Cancer Medicine as a New Cancer Research UK Major Centre

The Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre was formed five years ago with the vision to harness the breadth and depth of research activity across the University and NHS Trust. There is now a rich and vibrant cancer research community that crosses traditional departmental and thematic boundaries. In recognition of the world-leading science taking place in Oxford, the innovative collaborations by Centre members, and the power of the cancer research network here, the Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre has been awarded Major Centre status by Cancer Research UK.

The Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre is one of the first to gain Major Centre status, receiving an extra £5 million in funding over the next two years. The Centre will continue to act as a vital research hub for the Cancer Research UK centre network, drawing together expertise, encouraging collaborative research, and bridging the gap between innovative laboratory work and benefits for patients.

The Major Centre strategy will focus on translating Oxford’s world-leading science across a broad range of disciplines, and ensure its translation into the clinic. Benefits for patients will be at the heart of its activities, drawing together expertise from different fields, including those not traditionally involved in cancer research. The Centre is ideally placed to deliver improved patient outcomes, and is driven by a bold and globally unique vision for how this will be achieved.

Priorities include the development of new immunotherapies and bringing together biologists, physicists, mathematicians and engineers to deliver new treatments. Investment will tie together advances in diagnostics, genomics, surgery, imaging, radiotherapy, and drug development to fulfil the Centre’s vision for precision medicine.

Professor Gillies McKenna, Director of the Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre, said: “We look forward to making the most of our role as a Major Centre and leader in cancer research in the UK. The new initiative will bring researchers and clinicians together in sustainable networks with longer term investment. This will allow us to combine the latest developments in radiotherapy and surgery with clinical trials of new drugs, providing the best evidence to guide cancer treatment and enhance cancer cure rates.”

Dr Iain Foulkes, Executive Director for Research Funding at Cancer Research UK, said: “The development of these Major Centres will accelerate national and international collaborations and improve treatments for patients. In each location we are developing cutting-edge approaches in how we treat the disease, be that the detection of individual tumour cells in the blood that allow us to monitor the disease or precision radiotherapy. With these Centres the UK goes from strength to strength in supporting the best cancer research in the world.”

The Cancer Research UK Manchester Centre, and Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre have also achieved Major Centre status. The Cancer Research UK Manchester Centre will transform cancer treatments by developing new techniques in personalised medicine. They will profile blood samples at diagnosis and throughout the patient’s journey looking for DNA and cancer cells that are released from the tumour. The information will then be used not only to pick the right drug for the right patient but also help personalise surgery and radiotherapy. The Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre will bring together the diverse strengths of Cambridge to create novel practical applications that will improve the detection and treatment of cancer. They will develop programmes in early detection, and integrative cancer medicine with the aim of developing new therapeutic approaches.


Former Oxford Biochemistry student wins top CRUK prize

Anca Farcas, former DPhil student with Rob Klose, is the joint winner of CRUK’s 2014 Pontecorvo Prize.

The prize is awarded to the CRUK-funded student who has produced the best PhD thesis and made the most outstanding contribution to scientific knowledge in their field of research for that year. The student is also expected to have shown that they have made a strong original contribution to the direction of the research.

Anca submitted her DPhil, ‘KDM2B links recognition of CpG islands to polycomb domain formation in vivo‘, in January 2014 and passed her viva voce in March 2014 without any corrections.

Her studies shed light on how mammals use chromatin-based processes to lay down the very earliest transcriptional patterns for development. With her colleagues, she provided evidence for a link between the polycomb proteins, a highly conserved family of proteins essential for gene silencing, and recognition of the characteristic non-methylated regions of DNA in mammalian genomes known as CpG islands.

The work, published in the first issue of eLife, was followed by another paper in Cell two years later where Anca and postdoc Neil Blackledge revealed a new and unexpected mechanism for polycomb group protein targeting. Anca stayed on in Rob Klose’s lab until November 2014 to finish some further exciting work that is being continued by others in the lab.

Anca is now at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried, working in the lab of Juerg Mueller. She will be combining structural biology with functional tests based on genetic approaches in Drosophila to understand the mechanisms by which Polycomb repressive complex 1 (PRC1) carries out its repressive function.

Anca farcas

Anca is honoured to be the recipient of this prestigious prize, calling it ‘a great ending to four years of hard work‘.

She adds: ‘I had a fantastic DPhil experience working in the group of Rob Klose. I was surrounded by good friends and great scientists from whom I benefited and learnt about how to overcome the difficulties inherent to a DPhil. Importantly, my DPhil work wouldn’t have been possible without the generous support from CRUK.’

The panel of judges commended Anca’s elegant studies that have collectively helped to reshape our understanding of how the polycomb chromatin modifying system is targeted to defined sites in the genome, and was very impressed by her productivity.

By Jane Itzhaki, Department of Biochemistry

Flame of Hope Awards 2015

The Cancer Research UK annual national Flame of Hope Awards celebrate their most outstanding volunteers, and those who have carried out excellent work in research engagement. Since 2003 they have presented over 600 Flame of Hope awards to thank the committed individuals who give their time and energy to help beat cancer sooner.

The CRUK Oxford Centre is pleased to announce that Dr Anne Kiltie, Clinical Group Leader at the CRUK / MRC Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology and CRUK Oxford Centre member, was awarded the 2015 Research Engagement Award. Anne was part of the team behind the Reverse the Odds app, she explained the role the game plays in her research: “The app lets members of the public score our immunohistochemistry images for us. The public have already looked at one protein and we are about to compare the public’s scores with our ‘expert scores’ to see how well they match”. Find out more about the app here.

There was further recognition for the great work Oxfordshire residents are doing at the awards. Jeannette Milligan, a volunteer at the Abingdon CRUK charity shop, received a special commendation in the category Shop Volunteer of the Year.

If you’d like to find out more about volunteer and research engagement opportunities within the CRUK Oxford Centre then please contact oxfordcentre@cancer.org.uk

Discovery could improve radiotherapy for wide range of cancers

Cancer Research UK scientists have discovered how giving a class of drugs called AKT inhibitors in combination with radiotherapy might boost its effectiveness across a wide range of cancers, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical Investigation today.

Tumours often grow so quickly that some of the cells do not have access to the body’s blood supply, causing them to become oxygen-starved. This rapid growth usually sends signals to the cells to die, but in cancers with faults in a gene called p53 – present in at least half of all cancers – this signal is blocked meaning the cells carry on growing.

In this study, the researchers found that six genes that help protect the body against cancer were less active in oxygen-starved cancer cells when p53 was also faulty.

In the absence of two of these genes – PHLDA3 and INPP5D – a gene called AKT becomes permanently switched on preventing the cells from dying despite being oxygen-starved.

When drugs designed to block AKT were given to mice with tumours and lab-grown cancer cells lacking p53, the radiotherapy killed more tumour cells.

Importantly, lower activity in these genes was also linked to poorer survival in patients with a variety of different cancers. This suggests that adding AKT inhibitors to radiotherapy could be an effective way to treat many cancers.

Study leader Dr Ester Hammond, a Cancer Research UK scientist and CRUK Oxford Centre member, said: “This exciting discovery sheds light on the role of oxygen-starvation in cancer development and suggests that drugs already being trialled in cancer patients could potentially boost the effectiveness of radiotherapy across a range of cancers. We hope that this important piece of the jigsaw will support ongoing efforts to develop drugs that enhance radiotherapy, so that even more patients can benefit from this cornerstone of cancer treatment.

Eleanor Barrie, Cancer Research UK’s senior science information manager, said: “Advances in how we give radiotherapy and use it in combination with other treatments have the potential to improve survival for thousands of cancer patients. More than half of all cancer patients receive radiotherapy as part of their treatment, so anything that can be done to improve its effectiveness is potentially great news for patients.”