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New research to revolutionise understanding of lung cancer

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by Cancer Research UK | News

18 July 2013

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IN A WORLD first, a new Cancer Research UK study will unlock lung cancer’s secrets, tracking in real time how lung tumours develop and evolve as patients receive treatment.

In one of the largest ever studies of lung cancer patients globally, this pioneering project will examine exactly how lung cancers mutate, adapt and become resistant to treatments.

The nine year, £14 million, UK wide study – called TRACERx (Tracking Cancer Evolution through Therapy) and launched today by Cancer Research UK – will receive one of the single biggest funding commitments to lung cancer. Researchers will recruit 850 lung cancer patients* from across the UK and take samples of their tumour before and following surgery and subsequently if the disease recurs.

Biopsies will be taken from different parts of each patient’s tumour and analysed with the latest technology to give a more comprehensive genetic profile. Different parts of a tumour can evolve independently, so a sample from one region alone might contain different genetic changes to another sample, elsewhere in the tumour.

Lung cancer has been difficult to study as it can be hard to access and take samples of tumours. An earlier Cancer Research UK innovation means that patients will also have blood tests to examine DNA from the cancer that might be circulating in the bloodstream.

Researchers will then be able to compare genetic changes within and between patients, record how the treatment changes the genetic profile of their disease, and how this ultimately affects the patients’ chances of survival.

The combination of these techniques will give an unprecedented insight into lung cancer and allow researchers to identify and understand the precise genetic makeup of lung cancers. The results will also lay the foundations for being able to offer patients treatment that is tailored to the specific genetic makeup of their cancer.

This landmark study will bring together more than 65 lung cancer researchers in the UK, including oncologists, pathologists, laboratory researchers and technicians based in hospitals, universities and research institutes.

The research centres taking part in the study are: University College London, Velindre Cancer Centre Cardiff, Birmingham University Hospital, Leicester Hospital, Cancer Research UK’s Paterson Institute for Cancer Research at The University of Manchester, The Christie Hospital in Manchester and University Hospital South Manchester and the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary.
University College London Hospital will be leading the thoracic surgery for the research.

The study marks the start of a new Cancer Research UK initiative to beat lung cancer sooner which will also see the funding of a new centre of excellence in lung cancer research.

Scientific advances have helped more people survive cancer than ever before. But progress has not been consistent across all cancer types, and some have lagged behind.

One of these is lung cancer – which is the most common cause of cancer death in the UK, and only nine per cent of patients survive their disease beyond five years.

Cancer Research UK plans to change this by investing heavily in lung cancer in the coming years. The new initiative will help focus attention on lung cancer and galvanise the research community, drawing in existing lung cancer experts and opening doors for new talent.

Professor Charlie Swanton, lead researcher based at Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute and University College London, said: “Success in treating lung cancer has been difficult to achieve but we’re hoping to change that. The first step to improving cancer diagnosis and treatment is to understand more about the disease and how it changes over time. Research has led us to this point when, after decades of earlier work, we can look to the future with real optimism. We plan to harness new sequencing technologies to trace the genetic evolution of cancer over the course of the disease. Our research will help explain why lung cancer is difficult to treat, and steer a path towards saving more lives.”

Dr Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Lung cancer kills more people than any other type of cancer. We want to change this. For too long, success against the disease has been slow. We’re determined to unlock the secrets of the disease, to understand its biology, to develop more accurate tests to diagnose it and discover better treatments for people.

Around 42,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK every year, with around 35,000 deaths from the disease. TRACERx will help to improve the understanding of the disease and ultimately the outlook for patients and their families.

Robert Peston, BBC’s business editor, has a personal connection to lung cancer and said: “Lung cancer is the biggest cancer killer, and can afflict any of us, old or young, smokers or non-smokers. I know this only too well because my non-smoking wife, Sian Busby, died last year at the age of 51. Unfortunately, as Sian and I learned, medical science’s understanding of this terrible disease lags behind knowledge of other cancers. That is why the planned genetic analysis of many hundreds of lung cancer tumours, of the TRACERx programme being announced today, feels like an important and positive development.”

Lawrence Dallaglio OBE, retired English rugby union player and former captain of the English national team, said: “Lung cancer is a devastating disease for patients and their families. Far too many people still go through what my family had to face after my mother was diagnosed with the illness. Cancer Research UK’s commitment to beating lung cancer will help improve the outcome for patients in the future. This is a big project with a powerful goal – to understand this complicated, dreadful disease. More needs to be done to help more people beat lung cancer.”

Dr Kumar added: “TRACERx is key to achieving a better outcome for lung cancer patients. Our researchers will revolutionise what we know of the disease, how we think about it and ultimately will help us to save lives. Our commitment to beating lung cancer is only possible with the generous support of people from across the UK. ”

For media enquiries contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8352 or, out of hours, 07050 264 059.