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£8m funding for Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre for radiotherapy research

An £8milllion cash injection from Cancer Research UK will enable Cambridge scientists to research new radiotherapy technologies and techniques.

Focusing on breast, lung and children’s brain’s tumours, they will explore how radiation interacts with cancer cells at a molecular level.

Dr Charlotte Coles in the Breast cancer unit at Addenbrooke's. Picture: Keith Heppell. (20848720)
Dr Charlotte Coles in the Breast cancer unit at Addenbrooke's. Picture: Keith Heppell. (20848720)

The researchers aim to discover why these cells become resistant to radiotherapy and how to overcome the problem.

Working with doctors, they will also use gene-editing technology to search for new genetic targets for drug-radiotherapy combinations.

The funding, which will be awarded over five years to the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, is part of the charity’s £56million RadNet programme - its largest investment to date in radiotherapy research.

Cambridge will one of seven centres of excellence advancing radiotherapy research, alongside those in Manchester, Glasgow, Oxford, Leeds and two in London.

Professor Charlotte Coles, consultant clinical oncologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, is lead researcher for the Cambridge centre and was named the Researcher of the Year at last year’s Cambridge Independent Science and Technology Awards.

She said: “We are very proud that Cambridge has been awarded this grant to bring the next generation of radiotherapy treatments to patients sooner. The funding will support us to develop new radiotherapy technologies to help more people beat cancer and have a better quality of life after treatment.

“Our Cambridge team will create a research pipeline starting with discovery science – to find out how different tumours are able to repair DNA damage caused by radiotherapy and then use the latest gene-editing technology to develop radiotherapy-novel drug combinationsthat stop this process and overcome resistance to radiotherapy.

“We plan to bring these new discoveries into the clinic by designing novel clinical trials and also use artificial intelligence to predict how tumours and normal cells react to radiotherapy.

“We have really world-class scientists in Cambridge and fantastic clinical researchers that include doctors, physicists, radiographers and nurses.

“This funding now gives us a real opportunity to bring all this expertise together into one big team completely committed radiotherapy research.

Dr Charlotte Coles in the Breast cancer unit at Addenbrooke's. Picture: Keith Heppell. (20848726)
Dr Charlotte Coles in the Breast cancer unit at Addenbrooke's. Picture: Keith Heppell. (20848726)

“We will be focusing on breast, lung and children’s brain tumours and will work closely with the whole radiotherapy research community in partnership with patients.

“Our united goal is to enable everyone needing radiotherapy to achieve the best chance of cure with the least side effects.”

The NHS treats 130,000 patients in the UK with radiotherapy annually - about three in 10 of those undergoing cancer treatment. It works by targeting tumours with X-ray radiation, which kills cancer cells by irreversibly damaging their DNA.

It was first introduced in the 1920s, when it was pioneered by Cancer Research UK.

Now the charity hopes biomarkers can be developed to predict how patients will respond to radiotherapy.

Prof Coles and her team led a UK-wide trial called IMPORT LOW, which showed that giving partial radiotherapy - a dose around a smaller area of the breast around the tumour bed - could be as effective as standard whole breast radiotherapy, but reduced side effects, including changes in breast appearance.

Hilary Stobart, 65, a former scientist from Cambridgeshire, was among those taking part in the trial.

She said: “I was in a group with the least amount of radiotherapy and thankfully I had very few side effects - just some soreness at the start but that was it.

“I had great treatment and I am very pleased that I took part in this study. I was also very proud to hear when the five year-trial results were published in the Lancet, and to know that partial radiotherapy is now offered as standard of care when appropriate."

With new funding, further advances in radiotherapy will be driven by Cambridge researchers.

Read more

Changing how breast cancer is treated: An interview with Cambridge oncologist Dr Charlotte Coles

Breast cancer ‘spreads in waves, not continuously’, researchers at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute discover

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