Cancer Research UK and the US government’s National Cancer Institute have announced that two teams will work together to radically accelerate progress against cancer, in one of the first international collaborations inspired by US Vice President Joe Biden’s Cancer Moonshot.

The collaboration between the teams will develop and refine technology that will revolutionise how researchers capture and analyse cancer cells circulating in patients’ blood.

Using a super-sensitive cell-scanning device, researchers will analyse blood samples from patients with early-stage lung and bowel cancer to identify those who still have traces of cancer and so will be more likely to relapse.

This will give doctors the opportunity to rapidly start second-line treatments. In early-stage lung cancer, as many as 50 per cent of patients relapse after surgery.

Monitoring this ‘minimal residual disease’ has transformed care in blood cancers like leukaemia, but techniques are not sensitive enough to monitor patients with ‘solid’ tumours.

The new technology will also allow researchers to analyse the cells they find in great detail, providing clues to the most effective therapy for each patient as their cancer re-emerges.

The partnership will use a platform, known as the high-definition single cell assay (HD-SCA*), developed by Professor Peter Kuhn at the University of Southern California. This identifies circulating tumour cells** (CTCs) far more sensitively than existing techniques by examining every single cell in a blood sample.

Professor Caroline Dive and her team at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute at The University of Manchester, who has led the world in understanding these circulating tumour cells, will be using this technology for the first time in the UK.

The US and the UK teams will build and operate identical laboratories with real-time sharing of research data and experimental procedures. Both research teams have a long track record in collaborative work across disciplines and laboratories. This will accelerate the development and testing of this technology in the clinic, getting it to patients around the world as quickly as possible.

The US team will focus on bowel cancer, while the UK team – who are also part of the Cancer Research UK Lung Cancer Centre of Excellence – will lead the lung cancer research.

As the teams refine and develop the technology, they eventually hope to use it to detect early signs of cancer in otherwise healthy people, ultimately leading to marked improvement in survival and cure.

Professor Caroline Dive, from the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, said: “The prospect of using blood samples to detect and track cancer – so-called liquid biopsies – is set to transform cancer care over the next few years. We are exhilarated by the prospect of this new partnership, and at bringing this exciting new technology to the UK.

“Although early lung cancer can be treated successfully with surgery, patients face an anxious wait after treatment, and about half eventually relapse. Our new collaboration will let us spot those likely to relapse and get in early with other treatments, improving how we care for these patients, and delivering better outcomes, faster.”

Professor Peter Kuhn, from the University of South California, said: “Our new technique, developed over the past 10 years, is able to detect cancer cells in the blood far more sensitively and characterise them far more deeply than ever before. We’re excited to work with Caroline’s team and accelerate its progression into routine use.”

Professor Richard Marais, Director of the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute “Liquid biopsy research is a high priority in the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute and this exciting new collaboration will elevate our ongoing efforts as we seek to deliver personalised medicine for cancer patients at an earlier stage of their disease.”

Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “We’re proud to be part of Vice President Biden’s initiative and share his ambition to see progress accelerate so that more cancers are cured. By pulling down the international barriers to foster collaborations between the best teams around the world we can enable them to share technology, insights and data that will transform how cancer can be detected, monitored and treated.”


For media enquiries contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 3469 8300 or, out of hours, on 07050 264 059.


*The HD-SCA platform works by fixing cells from a blood sample – including CTCs – onto a slide, allowing them to be repeatedly analysed in a wide variety of ways. It is considered an advance on previous methods, which generally attempt to isolate individual CTCs from the bloodstream, and are thus far less sensitive. . Professor Kuhn’s lab will enter into a subcontract with the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research supporting the development and validation is supported by the US National Cancer Institute including a contract with Leidos Biomedical. The initial deployment in colon cancer is supported through a public private partnership by the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.

**Circulating tumour cells or CTCs, are cells that break off from tumours and enter the bloodstream. The numbers of them present in patients’ blood samples is thought to be related to the severity of their cancer. And analysing their DNA can reveal the mutations present in the original tumour, allowing doctors to identify optimal treatments.