From hard-to-treat tumours to complex cancer genetics, thanks to our generous supporters we’ve been able to fund loads of really important research this year.

So to pick out some highlights, we’ve enlisted the help of one of our researchers – Dr Emma Shanks – whose own inspiring story of cancer featured here this year.

Here’s what Emma picked.

Hard-to-treat cancers

Professor Andrew Biankin found that pancreatic cancer can actually be split into four different diseases based on how messed up the tumour’s DNA is.

The findings could be used to improve treatments, and in turn survival for the disease, something which is urgently needed.

According to Emma: “This work is so important because any small step forward in our attempts to treat pancreatic cancer is amazing. The work of Andrew and his colleagues holds great potential in offering much needed treatment options to patients with pancreatic cancer.”

Add Aspirin

This year saw the launch of Add-Aspirin, the world’s largest clinical trial aiming to find out if aspirin can prevent some of the most common cancers coming back. The trial will run in more than 100 centres across the UK and recruit 11,000 patients.

“The aspirin story is particularly interesting because I work in the drug repurposing field,” says Emma.

“Aspirin has been shown to hold some potential benefit in treating cancer, but it’s never been properly tested in a clinical trial. The fact that these longstanding observations around the drug are being tested is really exciting and really important.”

Tumour evolution

Our researchers showed that the more genetic mistakes an oesophageal tumour contains, the more aggressive it’s likely to be. They also showed that drugs like cisplatin – the standard treatment for oesophageal cancer – were less likely to work when the tumour had lots of mistakes.

In the future, the findings could allow doctors to better tailor oesophageal cancer treatment by identifying patients who are more or less likely to respond to drugs like cisplatin.

And as Emma points out: “Knowing when to stop giving drugs is as important as working out which one to give in the first place.”

The same research team, led by Professor Charlie Swanton, also began penning the first pages of an evolutionary ‘rule book’ for cancer. We blogged about their fascinating research, which is changing the way scientists think about tackling cancer.

Liquid biopsies

We helped tell the story of how 10 millilitres of blood goes on a journey in Manchester that could help our scientists understand how lung cancers become resistant to treatment. Watch the video below for the full story.

“Many cancers don’t respond well to treatment, or become resistant to treatment,” says Emma.

“Having potential insight into these changes through liquid biopsies could support earlier transition to another drug prior to resistance.”

The Grand Challenge

In October we launched the Grand Challenge, a £100m scheme tackling some of the biggest hurdles and challenges in understanding, preventing and treating cancer.

You can read about the seven challenges and what answering them could mean for patients in our Grand Challenge blog series.

“The Grand Challenge is really thinking outside the box with regard to the way science is funded,” says Emma.

“This gives an amazing opportunity to bring together researchers who have expertise in many different disciplines, and allow them to address some of the fundamental issues in cancer biology and treatment.”

The year immunotherapy hit the big time

In science terms, 2015 was the year of immunotherapy. It was the year that saw ‘designer immune cells’ hit the headlines, as well as a whole host of immunotherapy drugs.

A lot of the stories came from the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) conference, which we covered in this blog post.

“Immunotherapy has held great potential for a number of years, and to see that potential now being realised is extremely exciting,” says Emma.

“The development of new immunotherapy drugs, such as nivolumab, represents a new way in which we can treat certain types of cancer, such as lung cancer, which sadly have few new treatment options.”

Here’s a selection of the biggest immunotherapy stories of 2015:

  • We, and TIME magazine, covered how two immunotherapy drugs could be better than one – at least for a subset of patients with advanced melanoma.
  • Another immunotherapy drug called pembrolizumab (Keytruda) showed promising early results, again in melanoma patients. It could also be useful in treating a certain type of lung cancerForbes and The Wall Street Journal have more on this.
  • A fascinating study showed that microscopic metal particles could be used to guide immune cells carrying a cancer-killing virus towards tumours in mice – but it’s still very early days. The BBC covered this.
  • There were also reports of another immunotherapy drug, called MPDL3280A, that could be used to treat lung cancer. Bloomberg and Reuters reported on this drug, which doubled survival for patients with lung cancer, according to interim trial results. But we’re awaiting the full trial results before we get too excited.

And, once again, we want to thank each and every one of you for your amazing support this year.

Aine and Emma