The most common childhood cancers are cancers of the blood (leukaemias and lymphomas), brain, and central nervous system; they account for over half of the cancers diagnosed in children. Between 2008–2010, around 1,600 children were diagnosed with cancer each year in the UK. More than 8 in 10 children now survive five years or more, compared to 3 in 10 in the 1960s. Consequently, much research is directed at designing less toxic therapies, reducing therapeutic burden, and developing diagnostic tests to enhance patient stratification. This research is made possible in Cambridge by strong links between research labs and the clinic as well as contributions to international clinical trials.
Neuroblastoma is a cancer of the peripheral nervous system and is largely diagnosed in children under the age of 5. On average, around 100 children will be diagnosed with neuroblastoma each year in the UK alone. Research into this rare paediatric cancer in Cambridge is conducted in the labs of Prof. Anna Philpott and Dr Suzanne Turner. In the former lab, research is being conducted to elucidate the relationship between cellular proliferation and differentiation and how this finely controlled balance is affected in neuroblastoma. In the latter lab, the mechanisms of drug resistance of some neuroblastoma sub-types is being analysed.
Research on paediatric leukaemia and lymphoma is conducted in the lab of Dr Suzanne Turner in close collaboration with clinical colleagues, namely by Dr Amos Burke. Projects include characterising tumour heterogeneity in paediatric non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL), and investigating minimal residual (MRD) and minimal disseminated disease (MDD) as prognostic factors. Research into paediatric leukaemias is analyzing mechanisms of therapy resistance and divulging novel therapeutic targets. This research is undertaken with close alignment to a portfolio of clinical trials conducted at both International and National levels.
Wilms' tumour (also called nephroblastoma) is a children’s cancer of the kidney. The disease has excellent treatment outcomes and the emphasis now is on identifying high-risk patients, and reducing the toxicity and late-effects of treatment in lower-risk patients. Dr Boo Messahel who leads this project has a special interest into renal tumours.
A large national study, called IMPORT, is collecting information about the diagnosis, treatments, scan results and changes in tissue, blood and urine samples of children with kidney cancer. The results will help doctors understand why some treatments work better than others and will be used to improve treatment decisions in the future.
Malignant germ cell tumours (GCTs) are complex cancers that affect patients of all ages. They develop from cells that produce eggs or sperm and mostly occur in the ovaries and testes. Around 2,500 men are diagnosed with testicular GCTs every year in the UK alone, and the disease is a leading cause of death of young men. Dr Matthew Murray, Dr James Nicholson and Prof Nick Coleman are leading research on the causes on GCTs, in particular in the investigation of the role of MicroRNAs; they were the first to show that increased levels of these microRNAs are present in the blood when malignant GCTs are diagnosed and that levels of the molecules can be monitored during treatment. In the future, microRNAs found in the blood are likely to be useful for improving the accuracy of diagnosis and disease-monitoring in other solid tumours of childhood.
Research on paediatric musculoskeletal cancers is conducted in the labs of Professor Matthew Allen and Dr Jane Dobson. They are interested in preclinical modelling, with a particular emphasis on paediatric cancers (such as osteosarcoma, rhabdomyosarcoma and Ewings sarcoma) and adult cancers that spread to bone (such as breast, prostate, renal and lung cancer). They use a combination of cell culture and preclinical animal models to explore the mechanisms through which these cancers grow in bone and then spread (metastasise) to other organs. They also work with dogs and cats with naturally-occurring cancer to evaluate new therapies and work on strategies for prevention of metastasis. It is known that certain soft tissue sarcomas appear more frequent in specific breeds of dog, suggesting an underlying genetic influence, which they are exploring. Ultimately, they seek to develop new approaches to diagnose, track and treat these cancers in both animals and humans.