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Early Cancer Institute launched by University of Cambridge to ‘move the world beyond the fear of cancer’





The first physical institute in the UK dedicated to understanding early cancer is being launched today (Wednesday) at the University of Cambridge.

The Early Cancer Institute (ECI) will house up to 120 researchers, including biologists and clinicians, engineers, physicists and social sciences, working on way to detect cancer early enough to cure it.

Prof Rebecca Fitzgerald, director of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458923)
Prof Rebecca Fitzgerald, director of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458923)

In particular, they will focus on cancers that are hard to treat and have very poor outcomes, including lung, pancreas, oesophagus and liver cancers, along with acute myeloid leukaemia. Survival rates for these cancers have changed little in recent years.

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, the institute’s director, said: “People have tended to shy away from researching early cancer, but unless we do this work we are not going to improve survival rates for the majority of our patients, because most patients are still diagnosed late. Outcomes can be completely transformed if the cancer is diagnosed early enough and we have the right treatments.

“Cambridge has a rich history of making huge strides in cancer research, from developing the technology that allows us to sequence the DNA of tumours through to pioneering new approaches to treatments, such as the use of monoclonal antibodies and PARP inhibitor drugs. We want to build on this legacy of discovery and innovation and apply it to early cancer.”

The Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458628)
The Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458628)

Based in the Hutchinson Building on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, the new institute will be close to three hospitals and leading academic, business and healthcare partners, including the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, AstraZeneca and GSK.

It will also collaborate with physicists, engineers and mathematicians at the nearby West Cambridge site.

A number of research projects are already lined up.

Prof Serena Nik-Zainal of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458939)
Prof Serena Nik-Zainal of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458939)

Prof Serena Nik-Zainal will use whole genome sequencing to continue her work on finding DNA ‘fingerprints’ on tumours that give clues to how a cancer arose.

Dr Jamie Blundell of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458704)
Dr Jamie Blundell of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458704)

Dr Jamie Blundell will examine ‘fossil records’ in blood samples of patients who developed acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) to try to understand how blood cancers emerge and spread.

Dr Matt Hoare of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458823)
Dr Matt Hoare of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458823)

Dr Matt Hoare will study why genetic mutations in chronic liver disease significantly increase the risk of primary liver cancer - one of the only cancers with a rate that is increasing in the UK, amid rising levels of type 2 diabetes and obesity.

Dr Daniel Munoz-Espin of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458576)
Dr Daniel Munoz-Espin of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458576)

Dr Daniel Munoz-Espin, meanwhile, will explore the ‘microenvironment’ around tumours and how to use senescence – one of the body’s damage limitation mechanisms – to eliminate tumour cells in lung cancer.

Prof Fitzgerald is renowned for her work on the cytosponge device now in use in the NHS to help early detection of oesophageal cancer.

And she is setting an ambitious goal, stating: “We’re working to move the world beyond the fear of cancer.

She said Cambridge’s life science ecosystems is one of only four in the world – and the largest in Europe – with the capability, critical mass and integration of science and medicine to transform patient care.

Dr Daniel Munoz-Espin of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458622)
Dr Daniel Munoz-Espin of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge. Picture: Lloyd Mann (59458622)

Construction work on the new Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital could begin late next year, with discoveries and innovations emerging from the Early Cancer Institute expected to underpin much of the research and treatment that takes place there and beyond. The institute will be complemented by dedicated space in the hospital.

Prof Fitzgerald is also aiming to raise £20million to help upgrade the facilities in the Hutchison Building and to enable her team to attract more early career researchers.

Patient survival rates for hard-to-treat cancers

  • 5% of pancreatic cancer patients survive for ten or more years
  • 10% of lung cancer patients survive for ten or more years
  • 12% of oesophageal cancer patients survive for ten or more years
  • 12% of liver cancer patients survive ten or more years
  • 15% of acute myeloid leukaemia patients survive ten or more years


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