Cancer breakthroughs and changing the culture of cancer treatment

This summer marks the 70th anniversary of the NHS – an institution now deeply embedded in UK society. It had humble yet deeply significant beginnings. Though simple, it was radical. Though basic, it was ground-breaking.

Fast forward 70 years and we see a very different medical landscape, both in terms of research and care.

And that landscape continues to rapidly evolve.

Cancer research and cancer care have seen major advancement – with still a long way to go. Last year, scientists at Queen's University Belfast made what was described as a "breakthrough" discovery in the fight against bowel cancer - the fourth most commonly diagnosed cancer in the UK and the second leading cause of cancer death. Researchers at Queen's, in collaboration with the Universities of Oxford and Leeds, analysed tissue samples to uncover different types of bowel cancer, based on their genomic make-up.

Professor Mark Lawler, Chair in Translational Genomics at the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology at Queen's, said, "What we do is take cells from the patient and perform sophisticated laboratory analysis. This allows us to get a ‘genomic fingerprint’ of what the cancer cell is doing. That fingerprint allows us to define what's gone wrong in the cancer and provides a way for us to test for this in patients.  It can also give us clues to help us to treat the disease more precisely."

He added: "Imagine having a situation where you don't have to give the patient chemotherapy, where you give them a personalised therapy - individualised to them."

Such research typifies the direction of travel for cancer care. Recently, Queen’s University Belfast opened a £10million Precision Medicine Centre of Excellence (PMCoE).

Bridging academia and industry, the PMCoE will develop an internationally accredited laboratory focusing on diagnostics which can be used to predict a cancer patients’ response to treatment. “This will allow potentially costly drugs to be used more effectively by being prescribed only to those that can benefit from them” said Prof Manuel Sato-Tellez, Director of the Centre.

The PMCoE, located at the Centre of Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) at Queen’s, is the latest addition to the University’s already impressive state-of-the-art facilities. A new £32m Centre for Experimental Medicine opened in 2015 to promote research excellence in the field of Experimental Medicine.

Scientists continue to make discoveries in cancer. In Summer 2018, Queen’s researchers at the CCRCB alongside local company Fusion Antibodies plc secured a prestigious Medical Research Council award to develop a new antibody drug for the treatment of pancreatic cancer.

Professor Mark Lawler said, “The importance of precision medicine and personalised health in cancer cannot and must not be underestimated. It has the potential to revolutionise how we treat cancer patients as well as deliver better treatment, improve quality-of-life and provide more cost- effective care.”

The Institute for Health Sciences is one of four Global Research Institutes at Queen’s University Belfast.

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