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University of Cambridge involved in £55m transatlantic alliance to research early detection of cancer




The University of Cambridge will be a partner in a £55million transatlantic research alliance to develop radical new strategies and technology to detect cancer at its earliest stage.

A clinical facility will be designed and built in Cambridge to enable early phase clinical trials of diagnostic technologies as part of the International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED).

Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald has a research group at the MRC Cancer Unit and co-leads the CRUK Cambridge Centre Early Detection Programme, at the University of Cambridge (19661502)
Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald has a research group at the MRC Cancer Unit and co-leads the CRUK Cambridge Centre Early Detection Programme, at the University of Cambridge (19661502)

Cancer Research UK (CRUK) will invest up to £40million over five years into the alliance, with US partners adding a further £15million.

ACED, announced on Monday, is a partnership between CRUK, the Canary Center at Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, UCL and The University of Manchester.

Their aim will be to accelerate breakthroughs in early detection of cancer, which dramatically improves a patient’s chances of survival.

Existing screening programmes for bowel, breast and cervical cancers have had a major impact, along with improved public awareness and urgent GP referrals for those with suspicious symptoms.

But there remains no screening tools for many cancer types and a need for new detection technologies.

Led by clinician scientist Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald and physicist Dr Sarah Bohndiek, the Cambridge ACED centre - funded with £3.3million from CRUK - will be made up of 355 members from organisations that include the University of Cambridge, the Gurdon Institute, Wellcome Sanger Institute and NHS departments.

The new Clinical Infrastructure for Research in Early Detection (CuRED) facility in Cambridge will test and validate early diagnostics, speeding up the adoption of the most promising technologies.

Prof Fitzgerald said: “Early detection is an area of research that hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. This alliance will allow the field to gain momentum, so the sum of its members will be greater than its parts.

“In Cambridge we will work on essential clinical trials that will result in faster implementation of new early detection strategies and diagnostics, making a real difference to the lives of patients.”

New imaging tools to detect pre-cancerous lesions are already being developed in the city.

Dr Bohndiek, working with Prof Fitzgerald, has worked on an advanced endoscope using hyperspectral imaging to reveal colours beyond human vision that could highlight the early signs of cancer in the oesophagus and colon.

It is hoped that understanding the biology of early cancers and pre-cancerous states will aid early detection and treatment, and could one day enable ‘precision prevention’, where the disease is stopped from developing in the first place.

Liz Chipcase signed up for a clinical trial, which identified that she had oesophageal cancer - the diagnosis saved her life. Picture: MHewlett (19661498)
Liz Chipcase signed up for a clinical trial, which identified that she had oesophageal cancer - the diagnosis saved her life. Picture: MHewlett (19661498)

Last month, a Cancer Research UK study demonstrated the scale of the problem of late diagnosis.

In just one year, around 13,400 cancer patients in the East are diagnosed at stage 3 or 4, the research found. More than half of these - 7,800 - are diagnosed at stage 4, the most advanced, which leaves fewer treatment options and a lower chance of survival.

Across England, almost half of all cancers with a known stage are diagnosed at stage 3 or 4, equating to 115,000 cancer patients, of which 67,000 are diagnosed at the most advanced stage.

Five-year survival rates for six different types of cancer are more than three times higher if the disease is diagnosed at stage one.

At this stage, tumours tend to be small and localised. At stage four, tumours are larger and have started to invade surrounding tissue and other organs.the detection

Cambridge companies are also focused on early cancer detection - Owlstone Medical, for example, has developed a breathalyser undergoing trials that detects volatile organic compounds in breath.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Now is the time to be ambitious and develop effective ways to detect cancer earlier. It’s an area of research where we have the potential to completely change the future of cancer treatment, turning it into a manageable and beatable disease for more people.

“Real progress in early detection can’t be achieved by a single organisation. Benefits for patients will only be realised if early cancer detection leaders from around the world come together. No more siloes, no more missed opportunities; let us tackle this problem together and beat cancer.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Every two minutes, someone in the UK has their world turned upside down when they are diagnosed with cancer. Thanks to the pioneering work of UK researchers and our world-beating NHS, more people are surviving than ever.

“However, there is more to do to detect and cure this disease earlier. That is why I am pleased to welcome this new UK-US alliance, driven by Cancer Research UK.

“This is the transatlantic partnership at its very best. Our brilliant scientists will be able to work together to develop detection technologies and implement them in our health service, so we can find cancer earlier and ultimately save people’s lives.”

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