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Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute scientists to fight pancreatic cancer with barcoding

From left, Dr Michael Gill and Dr Martin Miller at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute (5680759)
From left, Dr Michael Gill and Dr Martin Miller at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute (5680759)

It is one of the hardest cancers to treat.

Only one per cent of pancreatic cancer patients survive for more than 10 years, and advances are desperately needed.

Now a £200,000 award from Cancer Research UK will fund the development of an innovative ‘barcoding’ technology that could help explain how the disease evades the treatments and the immune system.

Dr Martin Miller and Dr Michael Gill at the CRUK Cambridge Institute intend to use the Nuclear Tandem Epitope Protein (nTEP) Barcoding technology to study multiple aspects of a tumour’s environment simultaneously for the first time.

Tumours exist in a microenvironment of blood vessels, cells from the immune system and a sticky protein ‘glue’ known as the matrix, holding cells together.

Acting like a community, elements in this microenvironment work together to help the cancer cells hide from the immune system, enable them to resist treatment and provide the nutrients and support that allow them to grow.

While this microenvironment has long been studied by scientists, there is not yet a full understanding of how those different elements interact, co-operate and evolve.

Dr Miller and Dr Gill will develop the technology to track and analyse the different elements of a tumour’s microenvironment in extreme detail, analysing how cells interact and evolve. They will begin by testing the technology on pancreatic cancer in mice, but it could also be used to study other forms of the disease.

Group leader Dr Miller said: “We will engineer the cells to produce unique ‘barcodes’, which can then be detected through imaging technology.

“Much like you would scan a barcode at the till to know what the product is, we’ll be able to identify the different cells simultaneously and understand where they are located and how they interact with each other.

“This will tell us how some of the cells work together, as a community, to help the cancer either resist treatment or to hide from immune system. This knowledge is critical to develop better treatments for people with pancreatic cancer.”

Fluorescently labelled cells expressing unique nTEP barcodes (5680761)
Fluorescently labelled cells expressing unique nTEP barcodes (5680761)

The scientists applied for funding to develop their idea – which is at a very early stage – to Cancer Research UK’s Pioneer Awards, and were granted £201,500 over two years.

The awards are the Dragon’s Den of research funding. Anonymous applications are submitted and shortlisted researchers get 15 minutes to make their pitch.

Dr Gill, principal scientific associate, said: “Being awarded a Pioneer Award is very exciting. We believe in this technology and now have the opportunity to prove that it can work.

“It is often a lengthy and difficult process to get funding for new and innovative ideas at their earliest stage because you might not have the supporting data required.

“The Pioneer Awards are looking for potential and the panel of experts saw potential in our idea.

“Pancreatic cancer is one of those that is very difficult to treat. We need to better understand it and then we can make advances in treatment.

“There’s more to cancer than just cancer cells. Solid tumours can be thought of as a rogue organ in the body rather than a growing cluster of cells. If we can get a full picture of how those cells interact, assist and obstruct each other then we have a better chance of developing treatments that will work.”

Dr Martin Miller and Dr Michael Gill studying images at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute (5680763)
Dr Martin Miller and Dr Michael Gill studying images at Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute (5680763)

The award was announced during Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Month.

Jess Sutcliffe, senior research funding manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “The Pioneer Awards are as innovative as the research they fund. They allow us to find and fund researchers with big ideas that have the potential to be game-changing for cancer research.

“The awards back truly novel ideas that have the potential to improve our understanding of cancer, and to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease.”

Pancreatic cancer accounts for six per cent of all cancer deaths and survival rates have not improved much in 40 years.

There were 9,921 new cases of pancreatic cancer diagnosed in the UK in 2015. The following year, there were 9,263 deaths from the disease.

A high proportion of cases are diagnosed late. Only three in 100 of people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in England and Wales survive their disease for five years or more.

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