Cambridge scientists benefit from Cancer Research UK funding boost

Funding totalling almost £6 million has been awarded to doctors and scientists in the East of England to boost research into life-saving cancer treatments and services.

The grants will fund research to improve early diagnosis for diseases such as gastric cancers, as well as helping to develop secondary care breast services.

Researchers from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre will receive the lion’s share of the grants, awarded by Cancer Research UK, over the next few years.

One of the researchers to benefit is Dr Massimiliano di Pietro, a clinician scientist from the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge and consultant gastroenterologist at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust. He has been awarded almost £365,000 for his work which uses AI and video to improve gastric cancer diagnosis at an earlier stage – avoiding life-changing surgery.

Stomach (gastric) cancer is the 17th most common cancer in the UK, but only about 15% of patients presenting with symptoms of this cancer survive at 5 years, highlighting the importance of early diagnosis.

About 1-3% of stomach cancers occur in the context of hereditary diffuse gastric cancer (HDGC) syndrome, a condition due to a faulty gene inherited from one of the parents. This disorder causes signet ring cell carcinoma to form in the lining of the stomach, but due to its rarity, few doctors are experienced at diagnosing it at an early stage during endoscopic examination.

Dr di Pietro’s work wants to find a way of detecting this cancer earlier – and with greater accuracy. He said: “By harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence and developing new AI models, we aim to improve the examinations by endoscopists and identify signet ring cell carcinoma in its early stages.

“Our goal is not just about technological advancement but a reimagining of early cancer detection. In the future more doctors could offer very accurate endoscopic examinations to allow early detection not only in people with genetic predisposition to stomach cancer but to everyone undergoing a diagnostic endoscopy.

“The backing from Cancer Research UK enables us to explore new horizons in the early diagnosis of rare cancers, marking a significant stride in the battle against gastric cancer. This initiative promises a beacon of hope, ensuring that future generations are equipped to confront this challenge head-on.”

And Dr Stephanie Archer, from the Department of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge, will receive more than £57,000 to help women suspected of having breast cancer, who are given the ‘all clear’.

Each year in the UK, over 400,000 women suspected of having breast cancer are referred to secondary care breast services. Most attend a one-stop breast clinic for an examination, mammogram, ultrasound, or biopsy. Of these, 6% are diagnosed with cancer. The remaining 94% are discharged from the service back to their GP – and this is the target group for Dr Archer’s research.

She believes that these women represent a “significant missed opportunity”.

Dr Archer said: “Many will be given an information leaflet, advised to regularly self-examine their breasts, and to contact their GP for a re-referral if they have any new symptoms or concerns.
“But when someone is referred for suspected cancer, it could be ‘teachable moment’, because they’re more receptive and responsive to health information. I believe that routinely calculating their future risks of breast cancer and providing them with personalised risk information could be hugely beneficial.

“It would help women who may benefit from risk-reducing medication or earlier/more frequent screening, or genetic testing. And it could help raise awareness of health behaviours – such as cutting down on alcohol consumption – to reduce their risk in the future. It’s an incredible opportunity to work with, and support, these women.”

The funding, she added, will build on existing Cancer Research UK-funded collaborations, like the Cancer Research UK CanRisk programme, an online tool that enables healthcare professionals to calculate an individual's future risks of developing breast and ovarian cancer using cancer family history, genetic and other risk factors. CanRisk also calculates mutation carrier probabilities in breast and ovarian cancer susceptibility genes.

“I’m extremely grateful to Cancer Research UK for this funding award,” said Dr Archer. “It will enable us to investigate if, and how, risk assessment could work in the current health system; and ultimately design a pathway that we could then test.”

Cambridge scientists researching gene mutations; the development of screening for Acute Myeloid Leukaemia in the over 60s; and drug resistance in lung cancer, have also received funding for their work.

Research and innovation in cancer prevention, earlier detection and precision treatment underpins the vision of the future Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital, which will bring together researchers and clinicians from the University of Cambridge, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre and Addenbrookes Hospital under one roof in a new ‘world-class’ facility’.

Every year, around 37,400 people are diagnosed with cancer in the East of England.

Dr Anna Kinsella, a Science Engagement Manager at Cancer Research UK, said: “Nearly 1 in 2 of us will get cancer in our lifetime. Cancer Research UK wants to bring about a world where everybody can lead longer, better lives, free from the fear of cancer. The research we’re funding in the East of England will help us reach this goal.”

“In 2022/23, Cancer Research UK spent around £46m on research in Cambridge. In recent decades, the charity’s researchers in the city have made discoveries that will help improve cancer prevention and treatment, as well as creating new ways to diagnose the disease earlier when it's easier to treat. We look forward to seeing the network of leading scientists and doctors at our Cambridge Centre making even more progress to help people affected by cancer in the future.”
20 May 2024