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PancrImmune: Oxford Pancreatic Network Launched

As November 21st marks World Pancreatic Cancer Day, Oxford clinicians and scientists are uniting in the fight against the world’s toughest cancer. To launch this, Oxford clinicians and scientists met for the first Oxford Pancreatic Network meeting on Tuesday 19th November, organised by Dr Rachael Bashford-Rogers (WTCHG) and Dr Shivan Sivakumar (Oncology, KIR and pancreatic cancer oncologist) in collaboration with the CRUK Cancer Oxford Centre.

Pancreatic cancer has the worst survival of any human cancer. This is a tumour that has minimal response to conventional treatment and is extremely aggressive. The disease course is silent and is picked up mainly when incurable. To tackle this clinical need, we are bringing together experimental, clinical and statistical expertise from Oxford’s scientific community to investigate the microenvironment across multiple pancreatic pathologies and to plan new approaches to treatment strategies for improving patient outcome.

This pioneering proposal of the study of cause and effect of pancreatic disease, ranging from pancreatic cancer and pre-cancerous lesions to pancreatitis, immune-related diseases, type 1 and 2 diabetes, will be achieved through the integration of state-of-the-art technologies, underpinned by strong bioinformatics and functional studies. The aim of the work is to truly understand the pancreas and how it causes such significant but varying diseases. Helping us understand this may truly help us unlock the potential to treat pancreatic cancer.

This work will use knowledge gained from cross-pancreatic diseases to:
• understand which cells are able to enter the pancreatic micro-environment and their functions
• the modes of anti-tumour/auto-reactive activity
• strategies for early detection
• effect of current therapies/toxicities
• develop models of how to modulate the function and pancreatic infiltration of cells
• to direct us towards more targeted therapies across pancreatic diseases, such as through novel immunotherapies, and developing new clinical trials

Through this new partnership of expertise, we aim to build a new strategy to make an impact in the treatment of these pancreatic diseases.

Transatlantic collaboration to support earlier detection of pancreatic and oesophageal cancer

Oxford researcher Chunxiao Song, who is a group leader and chemist at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research, recently gave an interview to CRUK speaking about his work recently funded by the CRUK-OHSU Project Award. The Award is jointly funded by CRUK and Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU).

In collaboration with Dr Thuy Ngo (OHSU) Chunxiao is developing novel tools to analyse liquid biopsies for pancreatic and oesophageal cancer. The aim is to use epigenetic and transcriptome technology to detect cancer earlier and provide information on where the cancer originated from. The researchers plan to use machine learning to create classification models that distinguish cancer patients from healthy controls.

The collaborating researchers believe that a combination of those two technologies will generate a fuller picture than a focus on just one technology. Chunxiao explains: “Our project uses liquid biopsies – a test that looks for DNA and RNA shed by tumours (and in fact all cells) in a patient’s blood sample. I have developed new measuring technologies that use less harsh chemicals than the standard approach. This causes less DNA degradation, which makes it easier to measure small quantities of cell -free DNA. Thuy has focused her research on measuring cell-free RNA. This is even more difficult than measuring cell-free DNA – but she has developed a special protocol that’s really gentle and doesn’t cause degradation of the RNA.”

Chunxiao also speaks about his experiences with applying for CRUK funded grants. He emphasises how uncomplicated the process is, and how well CRUK supports applicants: “My advice to anyone thinking of putting in an application is to contact the CRUK funding managers early on because they can help guide you through the process from the beginning.”

The full interview can be found via this link.

 

 

(Content adapted from www.cancerresearchuk.org)

New Era in Precision Medicine for Pancreatic Cancer

The development of new treatments for pancreatic cancer is set to be transformed by a network of clinical trials, aiming to find the right trial for the right patient, after a £10 million investment from Cancer Research UK today.

The investment will support the PRECISION Panc project which aims to develop personalised treatments for pancreatic cancer patients, improving the options and outcomes for a disease where survival rates have remained stubbornly low.

A team of researchers from across the UK, including Oxford Centre member Dr Eric O’Neill, aim to speed up recruitment and enrolment of pancreatic cancer patients to clinical trials that are right for the individual patient.

Dr Eric O’Neill said: “the overall goal for PRECISION Panc is to personalise cancer treatment for Pancreatic cancer patients based on their particular genomic background. Oxfords role is to assess whether radiotherapy offers a therapeutic advantage to molecularly targeted approaches for some of the more common pancreatic cancer subtypes. We will be working closely with our partners in PRECISION Panc to ensure findings are expedited into clinical trials to bring advantages to patients as soon as possible”

The researchers will use the molecular profile of each individual cancer to offer patients and their doctor a menu of trials that might benefit them. The first wave of research will establish the best way to collect and profile patient tissue samples. Each patient will have up to five samples taken from their tumour at diagnosis for analysis at the University of Glasgow. The results will guide clinical trial options in the future.

The three trials planned as part of this initiative will recruit a total of 658 patients from a number of centres across the UK – with the scope to add more trials in the future. Patients may also be helped onto suitable clinical trials that are already up and running.

Professor Andrew Biankin, a Cancer Research UK pancreatic cancer expert at the University of Glasgow, said: “PRECISION Panc aims to transform how we treat pancreatic cancer by matching the right treatment to the right patient. Because the disease is so aggressive, patients may receive no treatment at all or if they are given an option it will be for just one line of treatment, so it’s essential that the most suitable treatment is identified quickly. It’s important we offer all patients the opportunity to be part of research alongside their standard care.”

The programme will ensure discoveries from the lab rapidly reach patients, and that data from clinical trials feed back into research of the disease. Cancer Research UK’s investment will support two of the three clinical trials, preclinical work, assay development, biomarker work and the huge amount of molecular sequencing. The charity’s funding will also provide overarching support though project management, funding staff, and a steering committee.

Professor Biankin added: “PRECISION Panc has been developed over the course of three years through the unwavering commitment of pancreatic clinicians and researchers who see that the patients deserve much more than is currently available to them. I’m fully committed to this project and I believe we’re on the cusp of making some incredible advances which will provide therapeutic options to help people affected by this terrible disease. Without Cancer Research UK and their vision for cancer precision medicine, and the commitment of the other stakeholders, we couldn’t get PRECISION Panc up and running.”

Dr Ian Walker, Cancer Research UK’s director of clinical research, said: “This ambitious project marks a new era for pancreatic cancer. Little progress has been made in outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients over the last 40 years, and we believe that PRECISION Panc will reshape how we approach treatment development. Cancer Research UK is determined to streamline research, to find the right clinical trial for all pancreatic cancer patients and to ensure laboratory discoveries have patient benefit.”

Image copyright Dr Eric O’Neill, CRUK / MRC Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology

Oxford researcher secures funding for powerful imaging technique in pancreatic cancer

Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund (PCRF) is funding six new research projects with a total of £1 million – bringing the charity’s support for research into the UK’s most lethal cancer to over £8 million. This is the third year that PCRF has invested £1 million in a single funding round. In total, the charity has funded 40 cutting edge research projects across the UK and Ireland, worth over £6 million.

Oxford researcher Dr Bart Cornelissen will be leading one of the six newly funded projects. Dr Cornelissen aims to use powerful imaging techniques to diagnose early stage pancreatic cancer. His team has already developed an imaging agent that attaches to a protein known as claudin-4 which is expressed in the early stages of the disease. This project will develop the agent so that this protein can be rapidly detected and monitored using PET scanners, which are increasingly common in hospitals. Dr Cornelissen is part of the Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre Pancreatic Cancer working group, and the early stages of this project were supported by an Oxford Centre Development Fund award.

Projects at Imperial College London, University of Liverpool, Swansea University, Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute and Queen Mary University of London, will also receive funding.

These new grants are in addition to the £2 million committed to the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund Tissue Bank, which launched in January 2016 and will accelerate research progress. The Tissue Bank is the world’s first nationally co-ordinated pancreas tissue bank and has already been hailed as “one of the most important developments in resourcing UK pancreatic cancer research in a generation”.

Says PCRF’s founder and CEO, Maggie Blanks: “In the charity’s early years, we had to focus on basic research to help understand pancreatic cancer and its mechanisms, with the knowledge that this would be a springboard for future research progress. More recently – typified by this year’s grants – we’ve been able to focus on projects that are closer to patients. These include innovative ways of making current treatments much more effective, developing ‘personalised medicine’ approaches and finding ways to diagnose the disease in its earliest stages.

“We’re committed to beating this disease and thanks to our loyal supporters whose fundraising enables us to fund all these projects and initiatives, we’re making real progress towards this goal.”

Oxford role in world’s first national tissue bank for pancreatic cancer

Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is to provide samples for the world’s first national tissue bank for pancreatic cancer.

The Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund Tissue Bank brings together surgeons, pathologists, oncologists, researchers and database experts to co-ordinate a national – and ultimately international – resource that will help to develop new treatments and bring these to patients much faster.

The new facility, based at Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), will store tissue donated by consenting patients with diseases of the pancreas undergoing biopsy or surgery at partner hospitals in five cities initially: London, Southampton, Oxford, Leicester and Swansea. All samples will be anonymised before being banked.

The partners will act as Tissue Bank collection centres, adding samples of tissue, blood, urine and saliva from around 1,000 new patients each year.

About 8,800 people in the UK are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer each year.  It’s known as the UK’s deadliest cancer, with a survival rate of just 3 per cent, a figure that has barely improved in 40 years.

New treatments are desperately needed. Surgery to remove the tumour offers the best chance of survival but most patients are diagnosed when the cancer has already spread to other organs. Without surgery, the average survival time from diagnosis is 6 months.

The Tissue Bank is being funded with £2m from the UK research charity, Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund (PCRF).

Each donation will be logged with detailed medical and, where possible, genetic information so that researchers can request exactly the right type of sample for their research. Data generated by all research projects using Tissue Bank samples will be fed back into a bespoke database, and will be made freely available to the global research community, to inform and underpin their own research.

The development of the Tissue Bank has been driven by Professor Hemant Kocher, a pancreatic cancer researcher at Barts Cancer Institute, QMUL, and consultant pancreas and liver surgeon at The Royal London hospital, Barts Health NHS Trust.

He said:  “This is a highly ambitious venture, but one that is crucial to enabling researchers to investigate new treatments for this most lethal cancer. At the moment, we can help only a small proportion of patients with surgery. For the majority of those diagnosed, and for those who see their cancer return even after surgery, there’s very little else we can offer.  

“The Tissue Bank will also help us to tackle this disease with earlier diagnosis. Many proteins associated with pancreatic cancer are also found in blood, urine and saliva, so having these materials from patients alongside the tissue samples helps us to find ways to diagnose the disease at an earlier, curative stage.”

The Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund Founder and CEO, Maggie Blanks, said:  “Researchers told us that progress was being held back by the scarcity of high-quality tissue samples on which they can test their ideas and validate their research. For research results to be more meaningful, the samples must be collected, handled and stored consistently, following strict procedures. 

“A nationally co-ordinated tissue bank will not only ensure that more samples become available to researchers, but that these are quality controlled to provide a much better basis for the very best research to be carried out. It’s a huge commitment for the charity, but thanks to the generosity of our supporters we’ve been able to make it happen.” 

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