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The Manchester Cancer Research Centre – ‘A real powerhouse for cancer research’

by Henry Scowcroft | Analysis

17 June 2015

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Manchester Cancer Research Centre building
The new Manchester Cancer Research Centre building opened this week

The new Manchester Cancer Research Centre building, a £28.5million partnership between Cancer Research UK, The University of Manchester, and The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, opens its doors this week.

We caught up with the centre’s director, Professor Nic Jones – who also happens to be Cancer Research UK’s chief scientist – to find out why he’s so excited about the new building.

Manchester already has the Christie and the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute. How will the new Centre fit in alongside that?

Prof Nic Jones

Professor Nic Jones, Director of the Manchester Cancer Research Centre

Nic Jones: The new building is a physical manifestation of a long-term partnership in Manchester, between Cancer Research UK, The University of Manchester and The Christie. The city has been fortunate enough to be home to two world-class cancer centres – The Christie Hospital, and the Paterson Institute (recently renamed the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute).

But alongside this, there’s a wealth of cancer research going on around the University of Manchester campus, for example at the School of Life Sciences, and at The Institute of Cancer Sciences within the Medical Faculty.

In 2006, we decided that, if we were to continue to accelerate progress against cancer, we needed to find a way to bring a lot of this expertise even closer together, into what you might call a ‘cancer campus’. We also knew that we needed to expand. The new Centre building is the outcome of eight years of planning, fundraising and hard graft.

How have the different partners worked together to make this a reality?

NJ: The new centre is built on land donated by the Christie, who also put in about £2.7million of funding. Cancer Research UK put in another £10 million – raised from the More Tomorrows campaign – and the University also contributed £10 million. The rest has come from donors such as the Wolfson Foundation and a number of generous individuals.

The building work started in 2012 and I’m absolutely delighted with how it’s turned out – it’s a really dramatic and eye-catching building, and makes a real statement – and given that it’s on a really busy road out to Manchester’s suburbs, it’s sure to get noticed!

How will the building itself improve the way research is carried out?

NJ: The key to good science is collaboration and interaction, and we’ve tried to work those principles into the building’s architecture and design. So there’s ample space and break-out areas to really ensure there’s lots of bumping into each other and sharing ideas.

We’ve also given over one whole floor to office space for non-laboratory researchers. This means many clinical researchers, as well as people working on, for example, clinical trial design and administration, will work in close proximity with lab researchers – and we hope this will foster all sorts of new collaborations. Overall, when we’re at capacity, there will be about 250 people working here – 150 laboratory researchers and another 100 working in a non-laboratory context – a really unique balance.

And of course the building’s no more than 10 yards away from the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute and The Christie, and just down the road from The University of Manchester campus, with its cutting-edge materials science and engineering departments.

So it really couldn’t be any more conducive to collaborative, cross-disciplinary activity of the sort that’s absolutely vital in modern medical research.

Watch a ‘fly-through’ of the new building:

Watch the video on YouTube

What sort of research will be going on in the building?

NJ: The main focus will be on understanding the molecules and pathways that go wrong in cancer, but doing so in a way that’s quickly and directly applicable to patients. A lot of this will be work that’s applicable to all cancers, but there’s a particularly strong focus on lung, melanoma and prostate cancer research here.

Our overall aim is to apply this research to the field of personalised medicine – working out how to match the right treatment to the particular characteristics of the patient’s tumour.

The sort of thing that the Centre should encourage more of is exemplified by Professor Richard Marais, who’s currently director of the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute. Over the last decade or so, Richard’s lab has been absolutely critical in understanding the molecules driving melanoma – particularly the BRAF gene – and this has led to new ‘targeted’ therapies like vemurafenib and dabrafenib. But resistance is still a big problem with these new drugs, and Richard’s team is looking at the molecular basis for this resistance, and developing newer and hopefully better drugs.

Another crucial area we’ll be focusing on – that’s made a lot of headlines recently – is in understanding the immune system’s dual role in both encouraging and also treating cancer. And it’s great that researchers like Santiago Zelenay are moving up here – Santiago used to work in Caetano Reis e Souza’s lab at what was previously Cancer Research UK’s London Research Institute – now the Francis Crick Institute – and it’s fantastic that he’s moving up to the Manchester Institute later this summer so we can capitalise on this exciting field.

There’s a lot of talk in the media about the UK needing a ‘northern powerhouse’ at the moment – do you see yourselves as part of that?

NJ: Manchester is a fantastic place to be doing cancer research right now. There’s so much world-class activity going on here – both in the field of cancer itself, but in life sciences and engineering more generally.

So, yes, I think it’s definitely a real powehouse for cancer research. The fact that we’re able to continue to expand what we’re doing, and draw in new talent from across the world, is incredibly exciting.

We’re even starting to think about whether we’ll need another building!

Interviewed by Henry Scowcroft