Oxford team shortlisted for Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge award

A multi-disciplinary team of scientists led by Oxford University has been shortlisted along with eight other groups, to the final stages of Cancer Research UK’s global Grand Challenge – an ambitious series of £20m cancer grants tackling some of the toughest questions in cancer research.

Led by the University of Oxford’s Professor Freddie Hamdy, and including researchers from three different countries, the team plans to distinguish between a lethal prostate cancer and one that doesn’t need treatment. They will combine detailed molecular analysis of existing samples with novel lines of investigation in new patient groups – aiming to understand what biological features are present at the earliest point when cancer spreads or becomes resistant to treatment.

The overall goal is to reduce unnecessary treatment of ‘safe’ cancers, and ensure rapid and thorough treatment of those likely to be lethal. The team hope to develop and test a ‘molecular checklist’ of features that will make this a reality.

The team will now receive seed-funding to draft their full research proposal, and the winning proposal will be announced in autumn 2016.

The Grand Challenge award aims to revolutionise how we diagnose, prevent and treat cancer by uniting teams of the best scientists around the world to come up with answers to crucial questions about how to save more lives from cancer.

Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “The calibre of applications for our Grand Challenge is evidence of the remarkable global talent working in cancer research. It’s inspiring to see scientists of all disciplines and nations unite in the fight against the disease.”

Dr Rick Klausner, chair of the Grand Challenge advisory panel, said: “With so many exceptional teams proposing novel approaches, it was no easy task to pick our shortlist, but we’re delighted with the teams we’ve selected and look forward to hearing more about their plans to beat the toughest questions in cancer. At least one of these teams will be awarded the first ever Grand Challenge award later this year.

Oxford University’s Professor Freddie Hamdy said: “Prostate cancer is one of the most common, but also most controversial cancers to manage. We are now set to answer the most difficult question of all: How can we recognise aggressive disease as early as possible, in order to treat the right patient, at the right time, with the right treatment option? With the exciting world-leading team we have put together, and unprecedented material from thousands of generous patients, we will rise to this challenge put to us by Cancer Research UK.”

Pioneering Oxford surgery technique could improve treatment for prostate cancer

Technology developed in Oxford to make tumour cells fluorescent could improve surgery outcomes for men with prostate cancer. From this Autumn, the method will be offered to patients as part of a trial at the Churchill Hospital run jointly by Oxford University and Oxford University Hospitals Trust and supported by Cancer Research UK.

Fluorescent compounds show up diseased cells during keyhole operations, allowing surgeons to be more precise when removing the prostate and tissue around it. Freddie Hamdy, the Nuffield Professor of Surgery and Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre Member, said this meant doctors could avoid taking away too much tissue, or too little.

He said: “The keyhole surgery programme is doing very well, but when we look inside we cannot always see the cancer. We see the prostate and most of the structure but the cancer is not often visible to the naked eye. If we take too much then it can have an adverse impact on continence and sexual function. If we do not take enough we leave cancer cells behind. So we need to create a new eye for the surgeons.”

The new technique combines the fluorescent compound with new camera technology developed by Boris Vojnovic, of the university’s Department of Oncology. The compound illuminates cancer cells, so the surgeon can use the camera to see exactly what needs to be removed.

Prof Hamdy added: “This means when we do the surgical procedure we can take exactly the right amount of tissue and try and guarantee a good outcome.”

Each year about about 40,000 men in the UK are diagnosed with a prostate tumour, the most common cancer in men. Treating prostate cancer in its early stages can be beneficial in some cases, but the side effects of the various treatments are also potentially serious. Prof Hamdy said: “You could over-treat someone even though he may have gone through life without seeing any of the effects.”

A major trial, called ProtecT (Prostate testing for cancer and Treatment) and funded by the National Institute for Health Research, has been completed to try and help reduce over-treatment. It has been running in nine centres of the UK since 1999, with Oxford University acting as a sponsor, and has involved more than 80,000 men – making it the largest study of its kind. The study is due to report back in the coming months. A separate trial, PART (Partial prostate Ablation versus Radical prosTatectomy), is also looking at focal therapy. Because treatments for prostate cancer can have a range of side effects, scientists also want to develop new methods that reduce the burden on patients but still control the cancer. PART is comparing the effects of removing the whole prostate with those of partial destruction using high-intensity focused ultrasound.

This article originally appeared in the Oxford Mail, and can be viewed online here