Campus close-up: University of Liverpool

Research hub signals support for education initiatives to tackle city’s high cancer rates. Matthew Reisz writes

September 25, 2014

As the grim statistics indicate, the North West Cancer Research Centre – University of Liverpool faces a vast regional health challenge. For Liverpool is the cancer capital of Europe, with inhabitants 42 per cent more likely to develop the disease than those living elsewhere in the UK, mortality rates 76 per cent above the European average and lung cancer deaths of 71 per 100,000 – twice the national average.

The centre was set up in 2009 “to act as a glue for the different research groups” said Sarah Coupland, the centre’s director. Subsequent years, she continued, have seen a £6 million recruitment campaign by the university, with 20 new appointments (eight of them chairs) to “boost the research portfolio and fill in the gaps” in essential areas such as basic cancer science; cancer pharmacology; radiation oncology; and statistics and bioinformatics.

About 30 principal investigators working under the umbrella of the centre, in the building and nearby, make Liverpool a major national player within cancer research. Many of the researchers are also clinicians – Professor Coupland works as a general pathologist who carries out diagnoses of surgical specimens – or academics with teaching and sometimes administrative roles within the university.

The NWCRC is in a modern building only a short distance away from the university. One of the main funders for its work, the charity North West Cancer Research, has recently taken up residence. The charity’s investment in research projects this year, largely in Liverpool but also in Bangor and Lancaster, already amounts to more than £2 million.

The centre’s ongoing programme, said Professor Coupland, includes “both organ-related research and cross-cutting themes, including personalised medicine based on looking for particular mutations”. Her own work, for example, addresses rare eye cancers.

Liverpool is one of three national referral centres for adult ocular tumours, with an Ocular Oncology Centre funded by a ring-fenced pot of money from the Department of Health. At least 300 of the country’s 700 patients are seen on Merseyside. The Clatterbridge Cancer Centre on the Wirral has the only proton-beam facility for eye tumours and performs surgery not available elsewhere.

Access to such a large cohort of patients brings benefits for Professor Coupland’s research group, allowing it to develop tools to separate out those who can be safely seen by their local eye doctor and those who need more frequent screening and active intervention.

Other research projects, which Professor Coupland described as “very distinctive and nation-leading”, include those looking at comparatively neglected pancreatic and head and neck cancers, alongside major contributions to the understanding and treatment of lung cancer.

She also pointed to pioneering research on deubiquitinating enzymes (or DUBs), which can be used to suppress tumours and are “not specific to any particular kind of cancer, since alterations across DUBs’ pathways can be applied in many areas”. Professor Coupland added: “We are collaborating with other universities and with Cancer Research Technology, the patent arm of Cancer Research UK, in translating that into the clinic. It is a unique selling point for Liverpool that this research started at the bench and ended at the bedside.”

In addition to its major programme of basic and translational research, Professor Coupland is keen to develop the centre’s “active educational programmes with the public” alongside Liverpool City Council and the Department of Health. An example of what she has in mind was “an event on skin melanoma drawing attention to its frequency in the region, probably due to the tanning studios”.

Professor Coupland hopes that such education programmes can also play a role in combating some dangerous misconceptions. A clinician at the Clatterbridge centre, for example, had told her that “some of the patients who come across the water from Liverpool to have their therapy done” see this as “almost like a death sentence” and so “don’t turn up to the doctor early enough because they feel there is no point”. One of these patients had even asked: “Is it really true that there are no trees in Clatterbridge because of the radiation?”

Given that late presentation by patients has a major impact on their chances of survival, such educational initiatives should also have an important role to play in reducing Liverpool’s tragically high cancer rates.

In numbers

42% Liverpudlians’ raised risk of developing cancer compared with those living elsewhere in the UK

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