Cancer Research Wales Announces £1M of New Projects For 2014

Cancer Research Wales is delighted to announce that over £1M will be committed to new oncology-related research projects across Wales this year. A total of 11 new studies will receive funding to support PhD students, post-doctoral scientists and technicians working on ground-breaking research.

Could a Blood Test Detect Colon Cancer?


Professor Dean Harris, a consultant general and colorectal surgeon based at Singleton Hospital in Swansea, has been awarded a grant to investigate if colon cancer, also known as bowel cancer, can be detected by a simple blood test.

This research is very timely, as this year colon cancer became the most diagnosed cancer in Wales, surpassing cancers of the breast, prostate and lung. Early diagnosis of colon cancer is critical for the successful management and treatment of the disease. The development of a simple blood test for its early detection will provide a much-appreciated alternative to current tests, which are often invasive, unpleasant and expensive. This multi-disciplinary project will make use of a combination of innovative biology, mathematics and physics techniques for the detection of cells, chemicals and other molecules in blood samples to create unique molecular fingerprints, specific for colon cancer.


Developing Anti-Cancer Drugs to Target TNBC and CRYAB

Elsewhere, Dr Andrew Westwell, a medicinal chemist based at Cardiff University, has received support to further develop his team’s anti-cancer drug discovery programme in Wales. This particular project will look to develop much needed new therapeutic approaches for the treatment of triple negative breast cancer (TNBC). TNBC accounts for around 15% of all breast cancers, and usually occurs in younger women, with early relapse and metastatic spread more likely than for other breast cancer sub-types. The treatment options for TNBC tend to be more limited, representing a significant challenge for clinicians.

It is welcomed that this project strives to tackle an unmet clinical need, with Dr Westwell and his team seeking to develop novel drugs against a molecule called CRYAB, which is present at high frequency in tumours derived from TNBC. CRYAB promotes the development of tumour blood vessels which aid the growth and spread of cancer. It is proposed that the disruption of its function will reduce aggressiveness and sensitise tumours to chemotherapeutic agents currently used to treat the condition. We very much look forward to seeing these drugs perform in pre-clinical assessments, with the hope that some of the most promising lead compounds will eventually make it to clinical trials in humans.

Cancer Research Wales Ed Evans Brain Tumour Scholarship

This year we were pleased to announce the first award of the Cancer Research Wales Ed Evans Brain Tumour Scholarship. The scholarship is in memory of Ed Evans, who tirelessly raised funds for Cancer Research Wales until his sad passing in 2007. Designed to promote original research in the area of neuro-oncology, the scholarship was awarded to Professor Mark Gumbleton at Cardiff University. High-grade brain tumours, or glioblastomas, are very aggressive cancers that invariably re-occur following initial surgery and treatment. These cancers have poor long-term survival rates, which, unlike some other cancer types, haven’t improved much in recent years.

Professor Gumbleton will study cancer stem cells, and how this specialised cell type contributes to the aggressive, treatment-resistant features of glioma. In particular, they will examine the function of a molecule called caveolin-1, known to be present in most glioblastomas, although its exact role remains unknown. Therefore, this project will help determine the value of caveolin-1 as a drug target in glioma and as a predictive biomarker that may be used to more accurately guide treatment decisions for existing therapies. Professor Gumbleton has teamed up with Professor Geoff Pilkington from Portsmouth University, an internationally-recognised scientist who is highly regarded in the field of neuro-oncology. Together they are looking to establish and build a much-needed platform of world-leading brain cancer research here in Wales.

Studying Brachyury in Colon Cancer Stem Cells

Dr Jane Wakeman of Bangor University, through further funding from Cancer Research Wales, will continue to unravel the mysteries of Brachyury in colon cancer stem cells, and to measure the impact it has in the response of tumours to current colon cancer treatments. Previous work carried out by the laboratory has identified Brachyury as a pivotal molecule for instructing colon cancer cells when to start or stop dividing. Cancer cells need to be actively dividing for conventional chemotherapy agents to be most effective, which suggests that Brachyury may be an important biomarker for predicting treatment response in patients receiving chemotherapy for colon cancer.

For this project, Dr Wakeman has teamed up with Professor Hans Clevers from the Netherlands, who is one of the world’s leading experts in the field of colon cancer stem cell biology. One of the main objectives of this study will be to develop and establish miniature organ cultures, using stem cells, which resemble and mimic the structure and behaviour of the colon. This will provide a platform to help develop effective, targeted therapies for colon cancer, and may also help in defining disease stages, which are key to the choice of treatment for patients.

Understanding How HPV Affects Oropharyngeal Cancer

Around 500 patients are diagnosed with Head and Neck (H&N) cancer every year in Wales. The incidence of a particular type, known as oropharyngeal cancer, arises from the tonsils and the base of the tongue. Incidences of oropharyngeal cancer have more than doubled in the last 10 years, mainly afffecting males aged 40-60 years. Dr Ned Powell, from the HPV laboratory at the University Hospital of Wales, and consultant oncologist Dr Mererid Evans, who specialises in the treatment of H&N cancer at Velindre Cancer Centre, have been awarded a grant to help better understand the exact mechanisms by which the HPV virus triggers this cancer type.

It is thought that HPV causes cancer cells to repair damaged DNA differently to those cancer cells derived from non-HPV H&N tumours. Non-HPV tumours tend to be more aggressive, and are associated with poorer survival rates. Armed with this knowledge, Drs Powell and Evans are looking at ways to therapeutically exploit these biological dissimilarities to render them more susceptible to chemo/radiotherapy. It is envisaged that such strategies will prevent damage to normal cells, and offer the patient less aggressive treatment, sparing them unnecessary and debilitating long-term side-effects such facial disfigurement, and difficulties with taste, swallow and speech.

This is just a snapshot of some of the exciting work that Cancer Research Wales is able to fund in Wales as a result of the generosity of our supporters. For a look at other research funded this year, and for full listings of projects funded in previous years, please take a look at Our Funded Projects page.