© Greg Harding

From the mechanics behind fast-moving melanoma cells to cancer’s very own (and very complex) family tree, we’ve picked a handful of important research discoveries to share from the last 12 months.

It’s thanks to all our supporters that we’re able to fund this research, and discoveries like these are opening up vital new ways of tackling cancer.

1. Stopping cancer in its tracks


Melanoma cells move quickly, which is why the disease is tough to treat once tumour cells have spread around the body. Finding ways to stop this is a major focus for our scientists.

Research with fluorescent fish showed us that some slower-moving melanoma cells might hitch a ride on faster ones to spread.

And a study looking at how these tumour cells stay on track revealed a chemical ‘breadcrumb trail’ that the melanoma cells lay for themselves while they’re on the move.

But just being nimble isn’t enough. Melanoma cells also need to be flexible, and change shape to squeeze through gaps between tissues as they spread. Our researchers showed one way this shape-shifting ability is controlled in melanoma cells to keep them going.

Crucially, these studies could all help turn some of a melanoma’s greatest strengths into weaknesses. And our researchers will keep tracking these cells in search of new ways to target the disease.

2. Making treatment personal

New treatments must be safe and an improvement on what’s already out there. And to show this you need a clinical trial.

But we’ve seen the face of clinical trials change a lot in recent years, including several studies we fund that are aiming to test several different treatments at the same time.

Our Matrix trial for lung cancer is one of these, offering treatments to different groups of patients based on the genetic make-up of their cancer.

3. Attacking the trunk of cancer’s ‘family tree’

As the tools for genetic analysis become more advanced they reveal an increasingly complex picture of how a cancer grows and changes over time.

This complex ‘family tree’ was documented in unprecedented detail by our scientists working on lung cancer. And they’ve now extended this analysis to more tumours as they begin penning an evolutionary ‘rule book’ for cancer.

The hope? To one day make predictions about how a tumour will grow, staying a step ahead of it and being able to offer the best treatments for that patient’s disease.

4. Drug resistance is futile


A sad truth is that in some cases a patient’s cancer will stop responding to the treatments available to them. The challenge of drug resistance is a big one. But our researchers are making progress.

A team of our scientists in London discovered that healthy blood vessel cells may be encouraging treatment resistance via a cellular communication molecule called FAK.

Researchers are also turning to blood samples as a potential new way to gather precious cancer cells to study drug resistance. For lung cancer, these ‘liquid biopsies’ are showing great promise, as we explored recently when we visited a team of our scientists in Manchester.

5. Tackling the toughest research challenges

In our ambitious research strategy we laid out plans to tackle lung, brain, oesophageal and pancreatic cancers, which have seen little improvement in survival figures over recent decades.

This year we’ve more than doubled the amount of money we spend on lung cancer research, and upped our pancreatic cancer spend from £6m last year to £15m this year. We held the world’s first international meeting of oesophageal cancer experts, and world-leading brain cancer researcher, Professor Richard Gilbertson, joined us from the US as head of the Cambridge Cancer Centre.

And our researchers have already begun making progress in boosting our understanding of these diseases.

They have redefined pancreatic cancer as at least for different types, and begun unravelling the genetic chaos fuelling lung cancer.

Our scientists in Cambridge have taken the next steps towards developing a new test that could help diagnose oesophageal cancer earlier when treatments are more likely to be successful.

And researchers have shown how a modified version of a brain cancer drug could help overcome resistance to treatment.

Each of these discoveries advances our understanding of cancer, uncovering potential new ways to diagnose and target these diverse diseases.

And each discovery is rooted in the generous donations from our supporters. For that we say thank you.