Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Oxford’s innovation in biomedical engineering

Awarded every two years, the Queen’s Anniversary Prizes recognise universities and colleges which have demonstrated excellence, innovation, impact and societal benefit.

Oxford’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering (IBME), which is a research institute in the Department of Engineering Science, has been at the forefront of innovation in medical technology for the past seven years, hosting world-leading projects such as the first human liver to be kept alive at body temperature outside the body.

Research carried out at the IBME has led to the establishment of nine commercial spinout companies, including OxSonics (ultrasound therapy), Oxehealth (cameras as health monitors), Intelligent Ultrasound (quality assurance of imaging services), and CN BioInnovation (fast-tracking of new drugs).

Professor Lionel Tarassenko CBE FREng FMedSci, Head of the Department of Engineering Science and Director of the IBME when it opened in 2008, said: ‘The move of engineering faculty to the IBME on the medical campus in Headington in April 2008 has been the catalyst for a remarkable period of innovation in medical technology in Oxford.

‘Oxford is leading the world in showing how engineers can work together with clinicians to address unmet needs in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of major diseases and conditions.’

Professor Alison Noble OBE FREng, the current Director of the IBME and Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre member, added: ‘Since the opening of its building, IBME has more than doubled in staff, having raised over £50 million in research funding. The 16 academic staff and the 200 researchers working with them have completed more than 20 clinical trials, from pregnancy screening and diabetes self-management to organ preservation, and have spun out a new medical technology company each year.

‘We also have some exciting new initiatives under way that are underpinned by international collaborations, for example a Regenerative Medicine Technology Centre with China, and the Oxford Biodesign programme in collaboration with Stanford University.’

In this 11th round of the Queen’s Anniversary Prizes, 21 UK universities and colleges have been awarded Prizes recognising a wide range of innovative work across a host of disciplines. The Prize medals will be awarded at a special ceremony at Buckingham Palace in February.

Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities and Science, said: “The UK is a world leader in science and research, and the Queen’s Anniversary Prizes celebrate the achievements of our universities and colleges. The outstanding academics recognised with these awards bring benefits to the everyday lives of millions of people in the UK and deserve this high honour for their work.

Kieran Poynter, Chair of The Royal Anniversary Trust, said: “The Prizes in this biennial round again illustrate the variety and quality of innovative work being done in our universities and colleges. They encourage our institutions to think about what they are doing in terms of practical benefit as well as intrinsic quality. The work being recognised combines a track record of outstanding achievement with the promise of future development.”

More than 100 new companies – more than any other UK university – have been spun out from Oxford research in the past 25 years via the University’s technology transfer arm, Isis Innovation, with over 500 licences and consultancy agreements being signed in the last financial year alone.

Find out more about the Institute of Biomedical Engineering, here.

Conferring of the Roche Discovery Oncology Award

Roche has awarded four Early Stage Researchers the Roche Discovery Oncology Award at its Innovation Center in Penzberg near Munich. This year, the invitation is focused on the role of the extracellular matrix in the development of cancer. “The presentations of the young researchers were outstandingly prepared. Above all, the marked interdisciplinary combination of applied cancer research with technology and pre-clinical translational models was impressive,” said Christian Rommel, Global Head of Oncology Discovery, Roche Pharma Research & Early Development (pRED). He went on to say “Here, a vigorous generation of young scientists is blossoming!”

Maria Antsiferova of the ETH Zurich was awarded the first prize for her study of the growth factor, activin. Activin promotes healing where the skin is damaged. It can also facilitate the formation of skin tumours, however, by reprogramming various immune cells so that these are no longer optimally able to attack a tumour. Hence, the inhibition of activin may be a promising strategy for the prevention and treatment of skin cancer.

The second prize was awarded to Arseniy Yuzhalin for his work at the University of Oxford. He has developed a new technology for the investigation of the extracellular matrix. Using his research approach, the entirety of all extracellular matrix proteins, in which the tumour cells are embedded, can be studied. By this means, new target structures for the development of oncological agents could be found. Arseniy commented that “this Roche Oncology Award provides an excellent opportunity for young researchers, especially graduate students, to present their work to a wide audience. My work was highly appreciated by an international panel of juries, and I was awarded a prize in a very competitive environment. I believe this award is immensely valuable for my early career development and it also motivates me to carry on the fascinating research we do here at the Oxford Centre”

In order to do justice to the high standard of the papers presented, the jury awarded the third prize to two candidates. Verena Leidgens from the University of Regensburg impressed the jury with her translational research paper on the development of glioblastoma, an extremely aggressive cerebral tumour. She identified a particular tumour cell type, which migrates into the brain and, here, initiates tumour formation.

Albin Jeanne, University of Reims, developed a new approach enabling the inhibition of the development of blood vessels in tumours in the extracellular matrix. The jury acknowledged that he had discovered a new biological point of application in an essentially well-researched field of research such as anti-angiogenesis.


Image: Winners of the 3rd pRED Discovery Oncology Award 2015: Verena Leidgens, Albin Jeanne, Arseniy Yuzhalin and Maria Antsifevora with award presentor Christian Rommel (Roche pRED, Global Head of Oncology Discovery)
copyright Roche /Schebesta


Pancreatic Cancer UK funds new Oxford researcher in the fight against pancreatic cancer

National charity Pancreatic Cancer UK has today announced the award of £100,000 to a research team based at the University of Oxford. The grant will allow the addition of a new member to the team as part of the charity’s pioneering Future Leaders Fund, amounting to over £500,000 in similar grants across the UK. This award will support a student through a DPhil project which will be supervised by Dr Emmanouil Fokas and Professor Eric O’Neill.

In the project, the new researcher will investigate how the body’s own immune system, which normally fights infections, could be leading to treatment failures and poor survival rates in pancreatic cancer. The mixture of cells and proteins that surround pancreatic cancer cells, otherwise known as the tumour stroma, is particularly dense compared to other cancers and can make up to 90 per cent of the tumour mass. The stroma can become infiltrated with a specific type of immune cell which is thought to prevent chemotherapy from working properly.

This research aims to discover how and why this happens, with the hope that the findings will lead to treatments for the future that target the immune cells and therefore improve the effectiveness of chemotherapy.

Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre members Dr Emmanouil Fokas and Professor Eric O’Neill comment; “We are thrilled that Pancreatic Cancer UK’s Future Leaders Fund award has allowed us to bring in a bright young student to work alongside us on our investigations into the interactions between our immune system and pancreatic cancer. We are hoping that this research will help us to gain a better understanding of the reasons that so many tumours are resistant to chemotherapy and radiotherapy, in order for us to start developing strategies to improve the efficacy of current treatments.

Pancreatic Cancer UK’s Future Leaders Fund aims to attract new research talent and retain that expertise within the field, by supporting the research leaders of the future with both clinical and non-clinical research.

Today’s announcement coincides with Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month. Throughout November, the charity is urging people to find out more about pancreatic cancer, which has the lowest survival rate of all the 21 common cancers, with just four per cent of people living for five years or more after diagnosis.

Pancreatic Cancer UK believes its ongoing support of pioneering, individual research grants will make a significant difference in a disease area where survival rates have remained the same for the last 40 years. Pancreatic cancer kills one person in the UK every hour and is the fifth most common cause of cancer deaths, yet receives only 1.4% of the total cancer research spend in the UK.

The Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre sees pancreatic cancer as a critical area of focus. Both Dr Emmanouil Fokas and Professor Eric O’Neill are members of the Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre Pancreatic Working Group, whose first meeting was held on World Pancreatic Cancer Day. This working group brings together 30 researchers and clinicians from multiple groups within the Oxford Centre network. The working group members come from a range of disciplines and by coming together they are able to further apply their world-leading science to areas of work that will have significant impact for patients.

Alex Ford, Chief Executive of Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: “As a charity that represents people with pancreatic cancer and their families, we have a responsibility to tackle the huge issue of under-funding into pancreatic cancer research as well as stimulating interest among the research community.

“We are delighted to be announcing this research at the University of Oxford as part of our latest round of grants under our Future Leaders Fund. We feel confident that the projects we have chosen to fund have the potential to make an important contribution to the fight against this disease. It is very exciting to be pairing up some of the most experienced researchers in the field and working together to begin to develop the leaders of the future in the fight against this terrible disease. We are looking forward to hearing of their findings as they work together with the aim of helping thousands of people with pancreatic cancer live for longer.”

To find out more about the Pancreatic Working Group at the Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre please contact cancercentre@oncology.ox.ac.uk


New treatment targets cancers with particular genetic signature

Oxford University researchers have found the Achilles heel of certain cancer cells – mutations in a gene called SETD2. Their findings will be presented to the National Cancer Research Institute conference in Liverpool today, Monday 2nd November.

It is well known that mutations drive cancer cell growth and resistance to treatment. However, these mutations can also become a weak point for a tumour. The Oxford team found that that was the case for cancer cells with mutations in a key cancer gene called SETD2.

Study author and Oxford Centre Member, Dr Timothy Humphrey said ‘Mutations in SETD2 are frequently found in kidney cancer and some childhood brain tumours, so we were excited when we discovered that a new drug we were studying specifically killed cancer cells with this mutation.’

The presentation will discuss how Dr Humphrey and his team showed that cancer cells with a mutated SETD2 gene were killed by a drug called AZD1775 that inhibits a protein called WEE1. WEE1 was first discovered by British Nobel Prize winner Sir Paul Nurse.

The team achieved this by exploiting the concept of ‘synthetic lethality’, where a combination of two factors kills a cancer cell. This has the potential to be a less toxic and more effective treatment than more standard approaches because it can specifically target cancer cells.

Co-author Dr Andy Ryan said: ‘When WEE1 was inhibited in cells with a SETD2 mutation, the levels of deoxynucleotides, the components that make DNA, dropped below the critical level needed for replication. Starved of these building blocks, the cells die. Importantly, normal cells in the body do not have SETD2 mutations, so these effects of WEE1 inhibition are potentially very selective to cancer cells.’

Importantly, the research team, funded by Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council, have also developed a biomarker test to identify SETD2 mutated tumours, something that can be used immediately in cancer diagnosis.

Professor Tim Maughan, Clinical Director of the Cancer Research UK/ Medical Research Council Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology, said ‘This novel and exciting finding provides a new scientific basis for precision targeting of some cancers which are currently very difficult to treat, and we are now taking these findings into clinical trials.’

While there is still work to do before a treatment is available, the hope is that these findings will help to target other cancers with similar weak points and provide a step towards personalized cancer therapy.

Dr Humphrey will be available on the Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre booth at NCRI on Tuesday 3rd November at 10.20 to discuss his work with NCRI attendees.