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Bowel bacteria, drugs targeting cancers’ metabolic weaknesses and DNA ‘signatures’ – the brightest new ideas in cancer research

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by Cancer Research UK | Analysis

26 August 2016

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Bacteria in the gut could help predict if immunotherapy will work.

What do you get when you combine scientists, a ‘Dragon’s Den’-style pitch, and £200,000 to fund cancer research?

Cancer Research UK’s Pioneer Award, and a new round of revolutionary research projects.

Last summer, we launched a scheme as innovative as the research it funds. We’re on the hunt for researchers with big ideas – ideas that hold up in front of a panel of experts and have the potential to be game-changing for cancer research. For those that succeed, there’s up to £200,000 on offer.

Two rounds of successful projects have been funded so far – including microbubbles to re-oxygenate tumours and make them more sensitive to treatments, Salmonella to selectively destroy cancer cells, and even a cancer cell shape sorter to ‘sift’ cancer cells from the blood. So what’s on the cards for our third round? The Pioneer Award Committee have made their decision…

Project 1: Messing with cancer’s metabolism

Dr Katiuscia Bianchi, Queen Mary University of London


Dr Katiuscia Bianchi.

Metabolism – the way cells get and use nutrients – is an exciting field of cancer research. Cells need a whole range of nutrients in order to survive, and getting hold of them is no easy task – it involves many different processes with lots of steps. One of these processes makes a molecule called serine, which is an amino acid – a building block that cells use to make proteins.

The way in which cells get serine is often abnormal in cancer, so researchers are looking to exploit this vulnerability and cut off supplies, stopping cancer cells growing.

Scientists have already developed drugs that block a molecule central to the production of serine, but there’s a problem – cancer cells are prone to quickly outsmarting the drugs. The cells can change the process, sidestep the treatment and keep growing.

Dr Katiuscia Bianchi, a researcher at Queen Mary University of London, is trying to get one step ahead of these cancer cells.

Along with her team, she’s developing an innovative new approach – a quick and easy way to measure the amount of serine inside a cell. This will enable them to investigate hundreds of drugs in the lab and identify which ones reduce serine levels most effectively.

Their new approach could be adapted to track levels of other nutrients cancer cells need too, opening up metabolism as a target for cancer drugs of the future.

Project 2: Cancer’s DNA ‘signature’

Dr Serena Nik-Zainal, Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute


Dr Serena Nik-Zainal.

Genetic mistakes are at the heart of cancer. These tiny changes in our DNA might look insignificant – a mere change from one letter to another in the code making up our DNA – but they can have big consequences.

We know more about the link between our genes and cancer than ever before, but turning this wealth of knowledge into better ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer is still a slow process.

Dr Serena Nik-Zainal, at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, thinks it’s time for a change. She wants to speed things up, making sure patients get the right treatment at the right time, giving them the best chance of beating cancer.

Her project is based around the idea that all cancers are unique. There’s a pattern of genetic mistakes that gives each person’s cancer an individual ‘signature’, and this information could be a powerful weapon helping doctors identify the best treatments.

Nik-Zainal is working on computer programmes to predict which signatures best match patients to treatments. Finding new ways to predict which treatment is most likely to benefit each patient could make cancer therapy more effective, and spare people unnecessary treatments in the future.

Project 3: A bacterial mystery

Professor Alastair Watson, University of East Anglia


Professor Alastair Watson.

Bacteria get more than their fair share of bad press, so it’s easy to forget some of them do us good.

Millions of bacteria live inside our bowels as part of a normal, healthy digestive system. And everybody has their own unique collection of bacteria which, among other things, help us make and absorb vitamins.

But is there any link between the bacteria living in our bowel and cancer? Professor Alastair Watson, based at the University of East Anglia, is investigating this question.

He’s an expert in bowel health, and is going to use his expertise to study the link between bacteria and advanced bowel cancer. He’ll look at whether bacteria affects late stage bowel tumour growth in mice, and whether different bacteria affect the levels of cancer-causing genes.

This research brings us another step closer to understanding what causes bowel tumours to grow, and whether different bacteria could be used to predict the risk of the disease spreading.

It might even lead to cancer treatments aimed at bowel bacteria in the future.

By encouraging our researchers to think big, we’re funding high risk ideas with potentially big rewards. And if we’re to achieve our ambition of three in four people surviving cancer by 2034, we need researchers who think outside the box.

Leigh Ansell is an intern at Cancer Research UK