Cambridge awarded government funding to speed up cancer diagnoses

The DELTA project aims to transform the clinical pathway for diagnosis of oesophageal cancer using new technologies and artificial intelligence.

Cambridge has been awarded funding for a government backed project to speed up life-saving cancer diagnoses.

Patients could receive earlier and more accurate diagnoses for potentially life-threatening diseases such as cancer and Crohn’s disease, thanks to £16 million of new funding announced by Science Minister Amanda Solloway today (Friday 3 July).

The government backed funding, delivered to six of the UK’s most innovative specialist health projects, from Cambridge to Glasgow, will harness the most disruptive technologies, including artificial intelligence, to develop more precise medical solutions, which could enable earlier detection and diagnosis of some of the most serious and potentially fatal diseases. 

The University of Cambridge project led by Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, who co-leads our Early Detection Programme, will help to diagnose oesophageal cancer earlier.

This type of cancer has increased six-fold since the 1990s and just 15% of people will survive for 5 years or more – often because it is diagnosed too late.

Barrett's oesophagus, a condition that can turn into cancer of the oesophagus is more common in patients who suffer from heartburn.

The DELTA project aims to diagnose up to 50% of cases of oesophageal cancer earlier, leading to improvements in survival, quality of life and economic benefits for the NHS.

Science Minister Amanda Solloway said: “Our brilliant scientists and researchers in Cambridge are harnessing world-leading technologies, like AI, to tackle some of the most complex and chronic diseases that we face.”

“Tragically, we know that one in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with some form of cancer during their lifetime.

“The University of Cambridge project we are backing today will help ensure more lives are saved and improved, as it aims to diagnose up to 50% of oesophageal cancer cases earlier.”

The projects will bring together the UK’s world leading academia, research institutions, NHS, charities and industry.

The DELTA project is a collaboration between the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Kings College London, the PHG Foundation and Cambridge diagnostics start-up Cyted.

High-level Advisory Board support is provided by patient organisations Action Against Heartburn and Heartburn Cancer UK as well as the NHS and Newcastle University.

The team will develop new smart algorithms to identify individuals most at risk including those on long-term medication for heartburn. These people will be offered a Cytosponge™-TFF3 test, which is an innovative cell collection device and lab test that can be delivered in the office setting.

Cyted will lead on the development of AI algorithms to assist pathologists to make rapid diagnoses.

People diagnosed with Barrett’s oesophagus can then be monitored regularly to spot, and treat, early signs of cancer. People who don’t have Barrett’s may be able to reduce their medication.

Other funded projects announced today include:

  • A project led by the University of Oxford is working to improve survival rates in people with lung cancer, the deadliest form of cancer in the UK. It will bring together existing work being led by the NHS, universities, cancer charities and digital health companies to integrate the best of digital imaging and diagnostic science to help identify cancerous tumours in the lung earlier.
  • Actioned, led by Queens University Belfast which is using artificial intelligence to achieve more accurate and earlier diagnosis of early relapse in colon cancer, improving the outcomes for patients;
  • A University of Glasgow-led project working to identify growths that are most likely to develop into bowel cancer, which is the second biggest killer among cancer related deaths in the UK.
  • University of Manchester led research into when liver problems – which affect up to four in 10 people – can lead to liver scarring, and sometimes complete liver failure. Current tests pick up advanced scarring, but don’t pinpoint early disease, or those patients who are destined for much worse. The project will use new software to come up with much better, much earlier answers. identifying liver damage earlier and more accurately. 
  • Another project, led by technology start up Motilent, is working on healthcare solutions to more effectively treat Crohn’s disease, a painful, lifelong inflammatory condition affecting 180,000 people in the UK. Through the use of artificial intelligence, it will seek to accurately predict when to start and stop drug use to control the disease, which currently has a 60% failure rate, and which can lead to further, irreversible damage to a patient’s bowel.

Of the £16 million awarded today, over £13 million will be delivered by the government, while up to £3 million will be made available from Cancer Research UK, to specifically support the oncology focused projects.

The funding, delivered through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, is part of a government programme in data to early diagnosis and precision medicine.

The competition is run by Innovate UK on behalf of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and forms part of the government’s commitment to increase research and development investment to 2.4% of GDP by 2027.

3 Jul 2020