A new £13 million interdisciplinary centre bringing together the Institute of Cancer Research and Imperial College London aims to drive a “fundamental shift in how cancer research is done”, bringing insights from physicists and data scientists into the field.
The Cancer Research UK Convergence Science Centre was announced on 29 July.
The idea behind the centre is to integrate the knowledge, methods and expertise from different scientific disciplines including physics, data science, AI, engineering, biological science and medicine.
It is hoped that such a collaborative approach will speed up scientific discovery and innovation in the field and create new treatments and technologies to help people with cancer.
Iain Foulkes, executive director for research and innovation at CRUK, told Times Higher Education that the charity has been a “traditional funder for cancer research”, funding cancer biologists and clinicians and so on.
But many of the big challenges in cancer research – from surgery to application of artificial intelligence to early detection of cancer – are “amenable to” engineers, physical scientists, physicists and chemists, he added.
“We believe that they can bring in their insights and very different technologies, but also very different ways of approaching the problem,” said Dr Foulkes.
“So the vision really is to combine the strength of approach that the physicists and engineers bring with that of the cancer biologists.
“And we have got real strength in cancer biology at the ICR, we have got real strength in bioengineering and physics at Imperial, so we think we are going to be able to tackle questions in very different ways than perhaps we have traditionally.
“And we think that will give us new insights into prevention, detection and, ultimately, treatment of cancer.”
The centre will be under the leadership of renowned cancer experts Lord Darzi of Imperial and Paul Workman of the ICR.
It will also provide specialist training and multidisciplinary PhD programmes “to help shape the next generation of cancer researchers”.
Lord Darzi said that by “creating a new generation of convergent scientists, we’re opening the door to new tools, devices and algorithms that we could never have imagined before”.
“We need to train people who are multilingual, who can speak the language of physics and can speak the language of biology,” added Dr Foulkes.
Dr Foulkes thinks that convergence science will become “the norm”.
“I think we will see a fundamental shift in how cancer research is done,” he added.
In one project, a team of biologists, physicists, engineers and clinicians are exploring whether ultrasound could be adapted to destroy pancreatic tumours located deep in the body.
The team will use tightly focused, high-frequency sound waves to target and break apart cancer cells with the help of “microbubbles”.
In another project, researchers are fine-tuning a technique to look at the activation of immune cells within a tumour, in real time.
CRUK’s chief executive, Michelle Mitchell, said that bringing in “fresh ideas from outside the traditional cancer research space” will help “scale the hurdles that have prevented treatment breakthroughs in the past and secure the future for more people with cancer”.
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