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Oxford Cancer alumni’s biotech success

Scenic Biotech was founded in March 2017 as a spin-out of the University of Oxford and the Netherlands Cancer Institute. The company is based on the Cell-seq technology developed by co-founders Sebastian Nijman and Thijn Brummelkamp in their academic labs.

Cell-seq is a large-scale genetic screening platform that allows the identification of genetic modifiers – or disease suppressors – that act to decrease the severity of a disease. These disease-specific genetic modifiers are difficult to identify by more traditional population genetics approaches, especially in the case of rare genetic diseases. By mapping all the genetic modifiers that can influence the severity of a particular disease, Cell-seq unveils a new class of potential drug targets that can be taken forward for drug development.

In a deal worth $375m, Scenic Biotech has recently entered into a strategic collaboration with Genentech, a member of the Roche Group. This will enable discovery, development and commercialisation of novel therapeutics that target genetic modifiers.

Oxfordshire-based SCAN pathway wins BMJ award

Every year, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) runs a competition to find the cancer care team that has developed new approaches to improve cancer diagnosis and treatment. This year, six teams were shortlisted from across the UK and on the 7th October it was announced that the Oxfordshire-based SCAN pathway had won this year’s award.

The Suspected CANcer (SCAN) pathway is designed to accelerate cancer diagnosis in patients with non-specific cancer symptoms. The UK performs worse than many other developed nations in terms of cancer survival and this is in part due to the fact that 21% of cancers are diagnosed after emergency presentation, when they are often at a later stage and more difficult to treat successfully.

In an effort to improve these statistics, urgent referral pathways for suspected cancer have been developed for symptoms specific to one cancer site. However, one in five people diagnosed with cancer only ever report non-specific symptoms of cancer, such as unexplained weight loss, fatigue, nausea, or abdominal pain. These people often experience delays due to being referred sequentially to multiple different tumour site-specific clinics before receiving a diagnosis. The SCAN team identified this unmet need and designed and implemented a new diagnostic pathway that straddles primary and secondary care for patients with non-specific but concerning cancer symptoms.

Patients are referred by their GP to the pathway based in the Churchill Hospital, Oxford, where they are investigated with a whole body computed tomography (CT) scan and undergo blood and stool testing. The outcome of these tests directs the patient to the most appropriate clinical expertise to reach a diagnosis as quickly as possible.

Since its implementation across Oxfordshire in November 2017, the SCAN pathway has seen 2148 patients and diagnosed 201 incidences of cancer, most commonly lung, bowel, pancreas, lymphoma and breast. In addition to cancer diagnoses, the SCAN pathway has diagnosed a large number of serious non-cancer conditions, including tuberculosis, endocrine diseases and inflammatory bowel disease.

“One of the unique features of the SCAN Pathway is that for the remaining patients who do not receive a cancer diagnosis, we offer GPs the option for these patients to have a general medical review in a further attempt to reduce onward referrals.”

  • Julie-Ann Moreland, Macmillan Project Manager and SCAN Navigator, Oxford Radiology Research Unit

Since the SCAN pathway’s inception, the number of GP surgery visits and secondary care referrals prior to receiving a cancer diagnosis decreased by approximately 4-fold, saving a large number of NHS appointments, and the time to diagnosis has reduced. Patients have also responded positively about the service in patient satisfaction questionnaires.

“Prior to the SCAN pathway, patients with non-specific symptoms were having to go to the GP on average 7.8 times and be referred to numerous secondary care clinics before receiving a diagnosis. The SCAN pathway decreases the time to diagnosis and allows patients to start receiving important treatments earlier. This will not only improve patient outcomes but will also reduce the anxiety experienced by patients while waiting for a diagnosis”

 

 “I am delighted that the SCAN team have received this recognition from the BMJ. The judges made a special mention of the holistic care that the clinical team works so hard to provide. Given its success, we are introducing the pathway across the Thames Valley Cancer Alliance and other regions. We are gathering data as we go so we can learn how to improve the service for patients.”

  • Dr Brian Nicholson, Academic GP Lead, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences

 

“The development and implementation of the SCAN Pathway has been the result of hard work and collaborative teamwork with passionate people who have strived to develop a service focusing on improving the experience for patients.

“To even be short listed for this award is an incredible achievement and so to win it has been a fantastic and unexpected surprise. We are all very proud of this new pathway and this is a brilliant way to receive recognition and celebrate that.”

  • Zoe Kaveney, Cancer Programme Manager at Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group

 

The SCAN pathway was supported by the Accelerate, Coordinate, Evaluate (ACE) programme funded by NHS England, Cancer Research UK and Macmillan, and the Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group.

Prof. Ellie Barnes comments on the 2020 Nobel Prize for Medicine

Prof Ellie Barnes comments on the recent Nobel Prize in Medicine, awarded to Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice for their discovery of the Hepatitis C virus, a major global health problem and a cause of cancer

In 1989, Harvey J. Alter, Michael Houghton and Charles M. Rice used what at the time were state-of-the-art technologies available to identify the virus that causes Hepatitis C infection. This ground-breaking discovery allowed for the development of blood tests to diagnose the Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) and saved millions of lives over the last 40 years.

Testing for HCV has enabled the discovery of chronic infections that results from the Hepatitis C virus. Currently 71 million people are living with HCV, as there is no vaccine to prevent infection. HCV remains a silent disease that is often only diagnosed until symptoms of late-stage liver disease develop. In many cases, it goes undetected until severe complications occur, the most serious of which is hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC). By this point, existing treatments are often less effective at clearing the infection.

Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common type of primary liver cancer, which is common in those who have had liver scarring due to Hepatitis B and C infections. 400,000 people globally die each year from HCV, with hepatocellular carcinoma continually on the rise. As a result, viral hepatitis is still one of the most serious global pandemics at large. Due to the lack of an effective HCV vaccine and early detection methods for the diagnosis of hepatocellular carcinoma, it is crucial to develop techniques that can aid its early detection and thereby increase the survival rate of cancer patients.

Prof Ellie Barnes at the Nuffield Department of Medicine, leads the DeLIVER study for the early detection of hepatocellular carcinoma that builds on the seminal work as recognised with this year’s Nobel Prize. On the topic of this year’s Nobel Prize winners, she says:

“Now, we need to repeat what those Nobel Prize winners did in 1989 for liver cancer. Like them, we can use today’s new advances in imaging and molecular technology to identify hepatocellular carcinoma at an earlier stage when it is still curable.

“The techniques to do this have advanced remarkably over the last 40 years and it should be possible, with carefully designed patient cohorts and inter-disciplinary effective co-working. By building on the work of Alter, Houghton and Rice, we can do it.”

The risk of liver cancer is increased by viral hepatitis infections, alcohol and obesity, causing the immune system to attack the liver leading to scarring and liver cirrhosis. Monitoring of people with these conditions can reduce mortality but current diagnostic tests for hepatocellular carcinoma fail to detect cancer in many cases.

The DeLIVER team is building on the work of Nobel Prize winners through the use of state-of-the-art multiparametric imaging, viral genetics, and liquid biopsy technologies (such as TAPS) to identify the early indicators of liver cancer by studying people at risk, such as those with Hepatitis C, over several years.

About DeLIVER

DeLIVER is a CRUK-funded programme led by Professor Ellie Barnes that aims to better understand the pre-cancerous changes in the liver and use this knowledge to inform new technologies for early HCC detection. The study will receive patient input from the British Liver Trust and the Hepatitis C Trust.

You can read more about it on the OxCODE website here.

Prof Anna Schuh wins Vice-Chancellor Innovation Award

Anna and her team wins the Teamwork award for their work on improving the outcome of children with blood diseases in sub-Saharan Africa

Professor Sir Peter Ratcliffe elected as an AACR Academy Fellow

Sir Peter joins the ranks of the American Association for Cancer Research’s finest scientists.

Centre co-Director Prof Xin Lu honoured by the Royal Society

The Royal Society, the UK’s distinguished academy of science, has announced the election of 62 new Fellows and Foreign Members, which include Professor Xin Lu FMedSci FRS. Xin is the current co-director of the CRUK Oxford Centre and Director of the Oxford branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research. It has been Xin’s distinguished career as a cancer biologist and her contributions to the understanding of cellular pathways that control cell fate in development and disease, particularly cancer, has earnt her this accolade.

She has a long-standing interest in how to selectively kill cancer cells, and her major research advances have provided insights into how p53, the most mutated or inactivated tumour suppressor in human cancers, can make life or death decisions for a cell. Xin’s early work showed how p53 responds to activation of cancer-causing genes and DNA damage. She has since discovered the ASPP family of proteins as molecular switches that control p53-mediated cell killing. Find out more about Xin’s research here.

Xin’s impact on the cancer landscape in Oxford

Of equal importance is the impact that Xin has had on the cancer research community here at Oxford. Her ability and desire to bring researchers together across traditional thematic boundaries was one of the many reasons she was appointed to the Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre Management Group in 2016 and as co-Director in 2018. During this time, her ability to identify new opportunities for collaboration and galvanise research teams from multiple corners of both the University and Hospital, has impacted both Oxford’s Oesophageal Cancer and Early Cancer Detection communities.

“It’s fantastic that Xin’s academic work has been recognised in this way” said Professor Mark Middleton, co-Director of the Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre.

“We are fortunate in Oxford to have a scientist of Xin’s calibre who is so committed to making sure that our world class science improves patient care. Many of the achievements of the Oxford Centre in recent years would not have been possible without her drive and leadership. Her ability to engage and energise research teams has had a profound impact on the cancer research community at the University and Trust, that will be felt for years to come.”

The fruits of these efforts are numerous and include Oxford being selected to host the inaugural CRUK International Symposium on Oesophageal Cancer; engaging with local clinicians to drive the opening of numerous innovative clinical and experimental medicine studies in upper GI cancers (including LUD2015-005 to test novel combinations of radiation-, chemo- and immune- therapy in this setting), the launch of the Oxford Centre for Early Cancer Detection and the external funding of numerous Oxford-ed project and programme awards in these fields.

“I am humbled to receive this honour from the Royal Society” said Professor Lu.

“As someone who barely spoke English at the beginning of my scientific career, I am hugely grateful for all the support I have received from my supervisors and mentors. My appreciation also goes to the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research for its long-term research funding and to the Department, College and University for a supportive and creative environment. Most important of all, my deep gratitude goes to the fantastic scientists in my laboratory, and colleagues I’ve had the privilege to work with throughout my career to date, without whom this recognition would not have been possible.”

About the Fellowship

The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship dating back to the 1660s that is dedicated to promoting excellence in science for the benefit of humanity. The Fellowship comprises the most eminent scientists, engineers and technologists from the UK and the Commonwealth. Former members include Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Dorothy Hodgkin and Stephen Hawking. This year, 51 Fellows, 10 Foreign Members and one Honorary Fellow have been elected for life through a peer review process on the basis of scientific excellence. There are approximately 1,700 Fellows and Foreign Members in total, including around 70 Nobel Laureates. These include Ludwig Oxford’s Professor Sir Peter Ratcliffe, a co-recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said

“At this time of global crisis, the importance of scientific thinking, and the medicines, technologies and insights it delivers, has never been clearer. Our Fellows and Foreign Members are central to the mission of the Royal Society, to use science for the benefit of humanity. While election to the Fellowship is a recognition of exceptional individual contributions to the sciences, it is also a network of expertise that can be drawn on to address issues of societal, and global significance.

“This year’s Fellows and Foreign Members have helped shape the 21st century through their work at the cutting-edge of fields from human genomics, to climate science and machine learning. It gives me great pleasure to celebrate these achievements, and those yet to come, and welcome them into the ranks of the Royal Society.”

Six academics from Oxford have been honoured in this year’s round of Royal Society Fellowship elections. Find out more on the Royal Society website.

NDORMS win cancer research awards

 

Nuffield Department of Orthopadics, Rheumatology and Musculoskeletal Sciences (NDORMS) supports multi-disciplinary research into the causes of musculoskeletal and inflammatory conditions, in order to improve people’s quality of life. Based within the Medical Science Division of Oxford University, NDORMS collaborates with many leading research units, particularly in the field of cancer research, to develop new and innovative ways to tackle cancer and its treatment.

Three awards have been given to NDORMS researchers for their work on cancer and its treatment. The awards include grant funding to further their work, which you can find out more about below.

Meet the winners

Audrey Gerard has been awarded the CRUK Immunology Project Award, for her research into mechanisms that inhibit anti-tumour immunity. So far, her research has had great success in the application of treating aggressive cancers, but stimulating the body’s own immune system to remove cancer cells.

This award hopes to further her research, hand help to determine if there are other aspects restricting tumour immunity that can be exploited.

Anjal Kusumble, Richard Williams and Felix Clanchy have been awarded the CRUK Early Detection Primer Award for their work on Ewing’s Sarcoma – a highly malignant tumour of the bone or surrounding tissue. This cancer is particularly hard to treat due to the difficulty of identifying and diagnosing it.

The team’s work into improving early detection of Ewing’s Sarcoma and its spread through the body has shown great promise in identifying potential relapses. The award will provide the funding needed to consolidate previous work and find new solutions to tackle the disease.

Alex Clark has been awarded the Cancer Immunology grant to support his exploration of how metabolic processes in B cells promote autoimmunity and lymphoma. The aim of this project is to find a way to interfere with the important pathways needed for cells to create amino acids – the building blocks for cell and cancer cell growth.

This work may pave the way for new treatment approaches which can be applied to diseases such as lymphoma.