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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.

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.

Oxford University and Sichuan University form joint Centre for Gastrointestinal Cancer

The University of Oxford-Sichuan University Huaxi Joint Centre for Gastrointestinal Cancer is a new international collaboration that seeks to develop an integrated gastrointestinal cancer plan through the exchanging of ideas and resources.

CRUK Oxford Centre to Host International Symposium on Oesophageal Cancer

The Cancer Research UK Oxford Centre, Cancer Research UK, Cambridge Cancer Centre and Chinese Hospital Chinese Academy of Medical Science (CICAMS) have come together to host an International Symposium on Oesophageal Cancer.

The symposium is being co-organised by Professor Xin Lu, Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald and Professor Qimin Zhan. Speakers that cover the breadth and depth of Oesophageal Cancer Research will be in Oxford on June 6-7th for this innovative event.

We are pleased to confirm that registration is now open and details can be found here.

Why oesophageal cancer?

Investigating oesophageal cancer presents unique opportunities for advances on two fronts: addressing the substantial unmet clinical needs of this disease; and uncovering molecular mechanisms with broad implications for our understanding of tumorigenesis.

The oesophagus provides an unusual yet accessible tumour context. In the lower oesophagus, the squamous epithelium of the oesophagus meets the columnar epithelium of the stomach and oesophageal adenocarcinoma is often preceded by epithelial cellular changes in an inflammatory condition called Barrett’s oesophagus. This setting thus presents a unique model for studies of the fundamental principles of interactions among different epithelial cell types, how signalling and differentiation are disrupted in cancer development and the influence of immune responses and inflammation on cell fate. On a global scale oesophageal squamous cell cancer is a major cause of cancer related death with some very high incidence areas thus providing further opportunities for investigating the epidemiology and causation of this disease and potential avenues for treatment.

Oesophageal cancer research is thus an ideal forum to bring together cell biologists, geneticists, immunologists and clinicians.