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Funding to improve childhood, teenage and young adult cancer detection

Cancer is the commonest cause of death among children and young people in the UK and is associated with significant long-term morbidity. Unfortunately, the UK lags behind other high-income countries in the time it takes to diagnose childhood, teenage and young adult (TYA) cancer and this delay worsens patient outcomes.

One of the challenges in diagnosing childhood and TYA cancer is its relative rarity and non-specific presentation, and awareness campaigns have been run in an effort to improve recognition of cancer signs among health professionals. Although this resulted in improvements for certain types of cancers in children and TYA, the national time-to-diagnosis targets have still not been reached in all cancers for all age groups.

Dr Defne Saatci and Professor Julia Hippisley-Cox (Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences) have successfully applied for a Cancer Research UK Early Detection and Diagnosis Project Award to accelerate diagnosis of childhood and TYA cancer. They will use the QResearch database, the UK’s largest GP electronic health record database, covering 20% of the UK population and linked to national cancer, hospital and mortality registries. QResearch data will be explored to identify the early symptoms and signs associated with a subsequent diagnosis of the commonest childhood and TYA cancers (acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, lymphomas and central nervous system tumours) and this information will be used to develop a risk prediction tool for GP use.

By increasing the understanding about the clinical features associated with childhood and TYA cancers and developing this risk prediction tool for use in primary care, this study aims to make significant advancements in childhood and TYA cancer diagnosis and outcomes.

If you are an Oxford-based researcher thinking of applying for external early detection funding, please get in touch with the OxCODE Scientific Coordinator who can help to coordinate your application.

 

DeLIVER clinical research study underway as recruitment opens

DeLIVER is a five-year Cancer Research UK-funded research programme led by Professor Ellie Barnes (Nuffield Department of Medicine) that aims to detect liver cancer earlier. Liver cancer is the fastest rising cause of cancer death in the UK, with more than 5,000 deaths per year. To improve survival, it is crucial to diagnose liver cancer earlier, when current treatments are more likely to be successful. However, this is challenging because symptoms are vague and late-presenting, and are frequently masked by co-occurring liver disease, such as cirrhosis.

A major goal of the DeLIVER programme is to learn more about the biology of liver cancer development and to use this information to design more sensitive detection tests. Because many people being tested for liver cancer have the high-risk condition cirrhosis, these tests need to be specific enough to detect liver cancer on top of other changes in the liver caused by cirrhosis. In order to identify the defining characteristics of early liver cancer, researchers need to perform a detailed molecular analysis of tissue from tumours and the background liver in people with liver cancer and cirrhosis and compare this to liver tissue from people with cirrhosis alone.

The DELPHI (Deep Liver Phenotyping and Immunology) study will recruit 100 participants at Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust. 80 of these recruited participants will have cirrhosis (caused by hepatitis virus B or C, fatty liver disease or alcohol) and 20-30 participants will have liver cancer in addition to cirrhosis. After giving consent, the participants will undergo fine-needle aspiration to collect tissue from the liver. This is a safe technique established in Oxford as one of only a few centres in the UK. Blood samples will also be taken.

Cancer Research UK Clinical Research Fellow Dr Rory Peters is leading the study. He said,

“We are very pleased to have started the recruitment for the DELPHI study. The in-depth analysis of samples from the DELPHI participants will be critical for increasing our understanding of how liver cancer develops and will give insights into how this cancer can be detected earlier.”

The researchers will look at individual cells to understand the cellular make-up of the tumour and surrounding tissue, including infiltrating immune cells, and how this may influence cancer development. By comparing the tissue from participants with and without cancer, they will also look for changes in protein or metabolite levels and alterations in the levels of chemical modification of DNA by methylation using the TAPS assay developed in Oxford by Dr Chunxiao Song. They will investigate whether the changes that they observe from the tissue analysis can also be detected in the blood, which would provide evidence that a blood-based assay could be developed as a less invasive diagnostic test.

Professor Ellie Barnes, Chief Investigator for DeLIVER said,

“The DELPHI study is one of three clinical projects within the DeLIVER programme. Together, these studies will inform us which of our diagnostic technologies perform best at detecting liver cancer at the earliest stages. We hope this work will lead to a step-change in earlier liver cancer diagnosis and improved patient survival.”

 

Read more about the DeLIVER programme in the OxCODE liver cancer early detection research showcase.

Registration open for Cancer Early Detection and Epigenetics Symposium

Join us and our co-hosts for this free virtual event on 28-29th April 2021 to hear the latest developments from international leaders in these fields

Drinking alcohol regularly increases cancer risk in Chinese populations

A new study demonstrates that reducing alcohol consumption in China could be an important cancer prevention strategy. Full story on the NDPH website.

For Western populations, there is a well-established association between regular alcohol consumption and a greater risk of various types of cancer. However, it was unknown whether these increased risks were the same for Eastern populations, which have very different drinking patterns and alcohol tolerance. Cancer rates are rising rapidly in China, and this may be partly due to more frequent alcohol consumption as citizens become more affluent. A new study led by NDPH on the large China Kadoorie Biobank has investigated this, with the findings published today in the International Journal of Cancer.

The study assessed over half a million adults recruited across ten diverse regions in China between 2004 and 2008. Each participant was questioned about their drinking habits, then followed up for a median period of 10 years. By the end of the study, almost 27,000 individuals had developed cancer (13,342 men, 13,619 women).

About a third of the men in the study drank regularly (at least once every week). Compared with those who abstained from alcohol, regular drinkers had a 26% higher risk for cancers previously associated with alcohol (ie, mouth/throat, oesophagus, colon-rectum and liver) and a 7% higher risk for all types of cancer. The risks were greater in those who drank daily or drank outside of meals.

For most of the cancers investigated, there was a clear dose-response relationship. Each 280 g/week higher alcohol intake was associated with an increased risk of 98% for oesophageal cancer; 74% for mouth/throat cancer; 52% for liver cancer and 19% for colon-rectum cancer. The study also found that each 280 g/week higher alcohol intake increased the risk of lung cancer (25%) and gallbladder cancer (60%), even though these cancers had not previously been clearly linked with alcohol.

In East Asia, many people cannot metabolise alcohol effectively due to an inherited deficiency in the enzyme aldehyde dehydrogenase 2. This causes the carcinogenic compound acetaldehyde to accumulate, which can lead to facial flushing. In this study, those who experienced flushing after drinking had stronger associations between alcohol intake and cancer risk, particularly for oesophageal and lung cancer. This suggests that the risk of developing cancer is greater for those with low alcohol tolerability.

The associations remained strong when the researchers controlled for potential confounding variables including age, region, education, income, body mass index, physical activity, and fresh fruit intake. The association between alcohol and lung cancer was similar for regular smokers and those who had never smoked regularly. Nevertheless, large-scale genetic studies are needed to determine if the associations between alcohol and cancer are likely to be causal.

Very few women in the study drank alcohol regularly, hence the study was unable to assess whether the association between alcohol and cancer risk was the same for women.

Lead author Dr Pek Kei Im said: ‘Our study has clearly shown that among Chinese men, alcohol consumption is associated with increased risks of several types of cancer, including some that were less clearly established to be alcohol-related previously. This suggests that lowering population levels of alcohol consumption is an important strategy for cancer prevention in China.’

Developing a system to simultaneously detect genetic and epigenetic information

Many diseases are associated with changes to the DNA sequence, most notably cancer. Also altered in disease is the way that the DNA is decorated with chemical modifications such as methylation (epigenetic modifications). Being able to extract genetic and epigenetic information using DNA sequencing has revolutionised biomedical research and has led to new ways to diagnose diseases. A particular interest currently is in using genetic and epigenetic characteristics of tumour DNA circulating in the blood or other bodily fluids as a strategy for detecting cancer earlier. However, despite the potential utility of combining genetic and epigenetic information to enhance disease detection, no methods currently exist that can efficiently simultaneously extract this information from the same DNA sequencing data.

Up until now, DNA methylation has predominantly been detected using methods that rely on a process called bisulphite conversion. Bisulphite is a harsh chemical that damages DNA, resulting in decreased sensitivity and a high error rate in the sequencing data. Because it is not known whether any changes in the DNA compared to a reference genome are introduced by bisulphite or real mutations, it is very challenging to simultaneously detect methylation and mutation data using these methods.

Recently, a new bisulphite-free method for detecting DNA methylation called TET-assisted pyridine borane sequencing (TAPS) has been developed by Ludwig Oxford’s Dr Chunxiao Song and Dr Benjamin Schuster-Böckler. This method is both cheaper than bisulphite sequencing and importantly produces data of higher quality, similar to that of standard DNA sequencing.

In this project, funded by an MRC Methodology Research Grant, Dr Benjamin Schuster-Böckler will collaborate with Professor Gerton Lunter (Visiting Professor, Radcliffe Department of Medicine) to develop algorithms that simultaneously detect mutations and DNA methylation from TAPS data.  Experimental data will be provided in collaboration with Ludwig Oxford’s Dr Chunxiao Song and Professor Xin Lu, and Professor Ellie Barnes (Nuffield Department of Medicine). Test data will be used to train machine-learning algorithms to optimise the accuracy of the sequencing method and to establish the best possible experimental parameters for this technique.

The resulting method will greatly increase the utility of the TAPS technique and will make it possible to routinely query a patient’s genetic background, while simultaneously measuring their epigenetic state. This will lead to a much broader understanding of the role of epigenetics in disease and would raise the possibility of using combined genetic and epigenetic information from sequencing data to aid earlier detection of cancer.

Image attribution: Darryl Leja, National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) from Bethesda, MD, USA, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Finding extracellular vesicle biomarkers for oesophageal cancer early detection

Extracellular vesicles (EVs) are entities secreted by cells that can be involved in cell-to-cell communication. They contain messenger proteins and other molecules, which act like ‘instructions’ to recipient cells.  EVs contain proteins both on their inside and outside.

All cells, including cancer cells, release EVs.  EVs from different cell types have slightly different compositions of proteins, which give them the ‘characteristics’ of their parent cell.

Members of the Goberdhan’s lab have previously shown that EVs released by colorectal cancer cells contain different protein when they are subjected to certain types of stress, such as certain nutrient deficiencies.  These ‘switched’ EVs change recipient cell behaviour, for example, increasing cancer cell growth. Researchers can potentially exploit these differences in EV protein composition to define distinct EV sub-populations: a helpful step towards their use as multi-protein biomarkers.

Dr Jennifer Allen and Ms Karen Billington from the Goberdhan lab are now applying this concept to the early detection of oesophageal cancer. Barrett’s Oesophagus is a pre-cancerous condition whereby oesophageal cells become damaged. Over time the damage can increase and cancer can develop.

Monitoring patients with Barrett’s Oesophagus is in place to try and identify when cancer has developed, however this is done through invasive and costly endoscopy, which may miss cancer in the very early stages. There is a need to identify when Barrett’s Oesophagus has progressed using less-invasive methods that can be used more regularly, so that cancer can be caught earlier.

Jen and Karen are investigating the potential of using EV proteins as biomarkers, which could be identified though simple blood tests. They are using different types of cells – such as normal oesophagus cells, Barrett’s Oesophagus cells and Oesophageal cancer cells – to compare the proteins found on the EVs released by each of these cell types.

The team is working with Dr Elizabeth Bird-Lieberman, a Gastroenterology Consultant at the JR Hospital, to collect blood samples from patients with Barrett’s Oesophagus, to see if EV information could be extracted and tested through simple blood tests – such as that being developed by Prof Jason Davis.

The aim is to identify a handful of proteins via proteomic analysis, that allows them to differentiate EVs from oesophageal cancer cells. If the protein biomarkers associated with the more cancerous cell lines can be detected in patient blood samples, Barrett’s Oesophagus patients could then be routinely tested for specific EV proteins that indicate the presence of parent cancer cells. This simple test could be carried out much more regularly than endoscopy surveillance and would enable earlier detection and treatment of oesophageal cancer in these patients.

Colorectal cancer cell extracellular vesicles. These two vesicles have become deflated and have the characteristic cup-shaped morphology caused by preparation for electron microscopy. Images generated by Dr John Mason (DPAG) and Dr Errin Johnson (EM Facility Manager, Dunn School).

About the study

The Goberdhan lab members are interested in intracellular signalling and cell communication. Their major focus is on how this goes wrong in cancer and other major human diseases. Specifically, they investigate:

  1. The role of amino acid sensing and stress-induced signalling in regulating cellular growth and intercellular communication involving exosomes.
  2. The regulation of exosome formation and heterogeneity by intracellular signalling pathways and membrane trafficking.
  3. The effect of exosome signalling on recipient cell behaviour and cancer progression, particularly in response to microenvironmental stresses applied to exosome-secreting cells.

 

This study is funded by the CRUK Early Detection Primer Award.

Detecting for multiple cancers in one simple test

Biomarkers – or biological markers – are used in many areas of health and disease as measures of a biological or clinical state. In the context of cancer, identifying biomarkers of early stage cancer is crucial for being able to detect disease earlier and improving the outcomes of patients with cancer. However, biomarkers alone are not sufficient for earlier detection. We also need to develop cost-effective, non-invasive, simple-to-use technologies that can be used in the clinic to detect these biomarkers with high sensitivity, specificity and accuracy.

Professor Jason Davis in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Oxford is working on just that. Professor Davis’ research has focused on developing portable, handheld diagnostic tests that use a range of electroanalytical methods for biomarker detection. This includes recent work on using novel electrochemical impedance-based sensing technology to detect C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation in the body.

These methods are advantageous for use in diagnostics since they generate results in a few minutes and are more sensitive than other commonly used techniques such as ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay). They also do not require the sample to be processed before testing, meaning that a single drop of blood can be analysed directly, without needing further reagents or equipment. Multiple different biomarkers can be analysed simultaneously, potentially allowing multi-cancer blood tests in the future.

To further develop this technology into a clinically implementable assay, five years ago, Osler Diagnostics was spun out of Professor Davis’ lab. The ultimate aim is that this assay could be applied in GP surgeries to test for disease in asymptomatic individuals.

Professor Davis is currently looking at clinical applications within cardiac, cancer and neurological diseases and welcomes interest from researchers who would like to contribute their biomarker ideas and clinical problems.

About the researchers

The Davis Group runs an interdisciplinary research programme within the Department of Chemistry that develops and applies methods for the fabrication of advanced functional interfaces, and are actively engaged in the development of molecular detection, diagnostic, theranostic, and imaging methodologies.

Understanding how inherited and acquired mutations interact to affect cancer

There are two types of genetic variation that affect cancer. So-called somatic variation results from changes (mutations) in a person’s DNA that are acquired during their lifetime in individual parts of the body. These mutations only occur in some cells in the body and are often the result of damage with age or by carcinogens such as sunlight, smoking and some infections. By contrast, germline variation is inherited and so occurs in every cell in the body since birth. An example of germline variation is inheriting a mutation in the BRCA1 gene, which is associated with increased risk of breast cancer in families with these mutations.

Many research studies have investigated the separate effects of somatic and germline variation on cancer risk, progression and response to therapy. However, these studies generate an incomplete picture. For example, designing bespoke therapies to target cancer cells containing specific somatic mutations has had variable success, perhaps in part due to differing underlying germline variation between individuals. To make further progress, we need to learn more about whether germline and somatic variants interact to affect cancer. This is the question that Dr Ping Zhang asked as a post-doc in Dr Gareth Bond’s lab when it was at the Oxford Branch of the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research.

In this paper published recently in the journal Cancer Research, the Ludwig Oxford researchers worked with colleagues at several other institutions to investigate the interplay between germline and somatic variants affecting the activity of the p53 tumour suppressor protein. p53 is a key protector against the development of cancers and somatic mutations in the gene coding for p53 are found in over half of all human cancers. Perturbation of p53 activity also influences cancer progression and drug response.

In this study, the team discovered evidence that germline cancer-risk p53 pathway mutations cooperate with somatic p53 gene mutations to alter cancer risk, progression and response to therapy, and can be used to identify novel, more effective therapies. With this increased understanding, this work has the potential to guide further discovery of future anti-cancer drug targets and novel combination therapies for enhancing precision medicine.

This work was funded by the CRUK Oxford Centre Development Fund along with the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, and the Nuffield Department of Medicine.

Studying viral genetics to aid liver cancer early detection

Chronic Hepatitis C virus (HCV) infection causes liver damage and is a significant risk factor for liver cancer. There are now cures available for chronic HCV infection and the World Health Organisation has set a target to eliminate HCV by 2030. However, although curing HCV reduces the risk of liver cancer, individuals with a history of chronic HCV infection remain at higher risk.

There are multiple types of HCV that differ in their genetic sequences. Previous research has established that not all HCV genotypes present the same level of risk for liver cancer. The next step is to discover which particular viral genetic motifs are most associated with liver cancer so the HCV-infected individuals who are at the highest risk of liver cancer can be identified. This will enable more targeted surveillance to detect liver cancer earlier when treatment is more likely to be successful.

Professor Ellie Barnes and Dr Azim Ansari (Nuffield Department of Medicine) have been awarded funding as part of a wider Wellcome Trust Collaborative Award led by Professor Graham Foster (Queen Mary’s University, London) to study anti-viral drug resistance and long-term effects of HCV in Pakistan. HCV infection is highly prevalent in Pakistan with up to 20% of the population infected in hotspot regions.

A cohort of ~500 individuals with HCV-associated liver cancer will be recruited and samples will be collected for viral whole genome sequencing. The Oxford team will then analyse these sequences, comparing to people with HCV infection but not cancer, to identify any genetic patterns that are linked to cancer.

This work complements the recently launched Cancer Research UK-funded DeLIVER programme which, among other features, will study host and viral genetics in a cohort of individuals with HCV and liver cancer in the UK.

Understanding how cancer arises from infected tissue

Whilst rates in the UK are relatively low, stomach cancer is still the third highest cause of cancer mortalities worldwide. The largest risk factor for stomach cancer is a chronic infection of the H. pylori bacteria. The contributions of other factors like diets high in salt, smoked foods, smoking and obesity are also important.

H. pylori can be found in the gut, and some strains cause gastritis & stomach ulcers. Long term colonisation can result in persistent cellular and tissue damage. Over time, the damaged gut lining can lose its structure and eventually become so undefined that the patient develops atrophic gastritis – a precancerous condition that could eventually lead to cancer.

A to F shows the increasing change of structure to existing gastric epithelium, as a result of prolonged H. pylori infections. (A) The normal gastric epithelium is organised in invaginations called glands. (B) A remarkable increase in size is observed in the inflamed stomach after H.pylori infection, a condition called chronic gastritis. (C) Atrophic gastritis, a precancerous condition with a higher chance of leading to cancer: the glandular structure is lost. (D) The emergence of a new type of gland with different features: a condition known as intestinal metaplasia to cancer. (E-F) The progression from dysplasia to cancer. Credit: Correa & Piazuelo, 2013

 

Understanding how persistent infection can result in increased risk of cancer is the focus of Dr Francesco Boccellato, Ludwig Institute, and his lab. Improving the knowledge of underlying mechanisms in early cancer biology may help us to understand how cancers originate in various parts of the body, and thus giving doctors more insight to detect cancer earlier in patients with precancerous conditions.

Francesco’s most recent project is investigating the role of growth factors in the determination of gut epithelial cells. The cellular lining of the gut, known as the epithelium, is where most stomach cancers originate. The epithelium is made up of a variety of different types of cells, responsible for different things such as mucus secretion, production of gastric acid and digestive enzymes.

Cross section of the stomach lining showing a gastric gland with different cell types that make up the epithelium. What causes stem cells to differentiate into these different cells is the focus of the Boccellato lab. Credit: Boccellato lab

The team are investigating what it is that activates stem cells to differentiate into different epithelial cells, in the hope of identifying new ways that the cells can become cancerous.

It is Francesco’s hypothesis that the specific localisation of growth factors in the tissue microenvironment may be responsible for the differentiation process. If this is the case, then it may be that a change in the relative quantities or localisation of these growth factors triggers a change in the epithelium structure and cellular composition over time.

The team are investigating this through in vitro models known as mucosoid cultures – growing human epithelial cells outside of the body and exposing them to different conditions to see how the cells regenerate and differentiate. Mucosoids are an innovative stem cell based cultivation system developed by the Boccellato lab, which enables an exceptional long term regeneration and maintenance of epithelial cells. The cells form a polarised monolayer producing mucus on the top side similar to the epithelium in a patient.

Top: example of a mucosoid with cells (the plasma membrane is labelled in green) producing protective mucins (MUC5AC) labelled in red (the yellow is where the two labels overlap creating the mucus layer). Bottom: example of a mucosoid with cells (the plasma membrane is labelled in red and the nuclei in blue) showing one cells producing Pepsinogen (in green) the precursor of pepsin, the main digestive enzyme. Source: Boccellato et al., GUT 2019

The results of Francesco’s investigation into the role of growth factors in determining gut cell differentiation and progression into atrophic gastritis are expected in Spring 2021. It is hoped that by better understanding the role of growth factors underlying the epithelial structures in pre-cancerous conditions, we can detect when cancers may appear and thus treat them earlier. Further studies will elucidate the role of bacterial infections (like H.pylori) in this process of re-shaping the tissue.

The H. pylori-cancer relationship is a great model for understanding other infection-based cancers. Colon cancer, gallbladder cancer, cervical cancer, stomach cancer and lymphoma are all examples of cancers that can be caused by bacterial infection. By better understanding how gut tissues work and progress to pre-cancerous conditions, we can apply this to other cancer models to see if the same is true.

A final line of investigation by the team will be into how H. pylori bacteria access gut cells to cause damage. The epithelium is usually protected by a mucus barrier, on which our natural and harmless microflora grow. Healthy gut bacteria cannot perforate this mucus barrier to reach epithelial cells, but H. pylori appears to be able to. Francesco is investigating what makes this possible, so that we may be able to develop drugs that prevent H. pylori infections from reaching the epithelium and causing damage.

About the Boccellato lab

The Boccellato lab is investigating oncogenic pathogens and how they contribute to cancer. Patients infected with those pathogens have a higher chance of developing cancer, but the malignancy arises many years after the initial infection event. Cancer may develop as a result of a long battle between the pathogen that persists, hides and damages the tissue, and the host that attacks the pathogen and continuously repairs the damage caused by the infection.

The team use innovative tissue culture systems of human primary cells to re-build the infection niche in vitro and to understand the long term effect of infection on epithelial cells.  

References

Boccellato F.  GUT. 2019 Mar;68(3):400-413. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2017-314540. Epub 2018 Feb 21.

Sepe LP, Hartl., mBio. 2020 Sep 22;11(5):e01911-20.doi: 10.1128/mBio.01911-20.

Boccellato F, Meyer F. Cell Host Microbe. 2015 Jun 10;17(6):728-30.doi: 10.1016/j.chom.2015.05.016.

Piazuelo MB, Correa P. Gastric cáncer: Overview. Colomb Med (Cali). 2013;44(3):192-201. Published 2013 Sep 30.