Today is Innovation Day, so we’re taking a look at some of the cutting edge technologies that our researchers are using in their efforts to understand and treat cancer.
iKnife: an ‘intelligent knife’ to spot cancerous tissue during surgery
Around 1 in 5 patients who have surgery for early stage breast cancer may need another operation because some cancer cells might have been inadvertently left behind. So Professor Zoltan Takats and his team at Imperial College London are testing whether an ‘intelligent knife’ (known as iKnife) can tell the difference between normal and cancerous cells during breast cancer surgery to help surgeons remove all traces of the tumour.
Typically a surgeon will send a tissue sample to a lab for analysis during surgery, but this takes up precious time.
“As these are often done in a rush, the results are not always completely reliable,” says Takats, who invented the iKnife. “So for a long time, surgeons have wanted a ‘magic wand’ to tell the difference between normal and cancerous tissues.”
The iKnife gets hot and gives off small amounts of smoke when it comes into contact with tissue. A machine then analyses the smoke and can tell the surgeon whether the tissue is cancerous.
The iKnife is being tested in clinical trials.
Blood tests to monitor and personalise treatment
Blood samples carry vital clues about a patient’s cancer, including intact cancer cells and chunks of tumour DNA. Scientists at our Manchester and Cambridge institutes are working on ways to study this cellular and molecular debris using so-called liquid biopsies. These blood tests could offer vital clues about a range of cancers, and track how well a treatment is working.
Achieving truly personalised care will require a reliable way of regularly monitoring patients. And a simple blood sample could be one way of getting there.
Nanobubbles to re-oxygenate tumours
Growing tumours can become starved of oxygen, meaning they’re forced to adapt to these harsher conditions. These adaptations can make cancer cells hardier and better at resisting treatments. So researchers believe that getting oxygen back in to tumours could help make treatments more potent.
One promising way of doing this is using nanobubbles. And Professor Eleanor Stride, from the University of Oxford, has taken inspiration from fizzy drinks. Her team is developing a drink containing nanobubbles of oxygen (much smaller than the carbon dioxide bubbles in your standard fizzy pop), and are studying in mice how the oxygen bubbles get from the stomach to pancreatic tumours, and how much gets there.
“We’re especially excited about the potential this bubbly drink could have for hard to treat cancers like pancreatic cancer, where survival is low and better treatments are urgently needed,” says Stride. “We’ve had success in the lab in mice, so we’re now looking at how to scale this up for patients.”
Packaging up cancer treatments in tiny packages called nanoparticles could make it easier to get drugs into cancer cells. And a promising approach from our scientists at the University of Oxford could deliver a specific drug and radiation directly to cancer cells in order to kill them, with the help of gold.
— Cancer Research UK (@CR_UK) November 8, 2016
They’ve only used the approach in the lab so far, and the human body will certainly be a tougher prospect, but the idea could prove to be a clever way of precisely targeting treatment.
Infra-red endoscopes to detect cancer earlier
Scientists at our Cambridge institute are using a dye that sticks to healthy cells but not abnormal cells to develop a specialised camera that could one day detect early warning signs of oesophageal cancer.
“People who are at a high risk of developing oesophageal cancer, such as those with Barrett’s oesophagus, could be closely monitored with this technique,” says Dr Sarah Bohndiek, whose team is developing the dye and camera.
Gene editing to boost immunotherapies
Tinkering with genes in the lab to find out how cells work became a lot easier, quicker and cheaper for scientists a couple of years ago.
And it’s all thanks to a gene editing technique called CRISPR.
It’s taken labs by storm, and our researchers in Edinburgh are using CRISPR to tweak specific genes in specialised neural stem cells, which are thought to play a role in how the most common type of brain tumour, glioblastoma, grows. By doing this, they’re hoping to understand more about these tumours, which can be really hard to treat.
New imaging technologies
It’s really important for a doctor to know exactly where a tumour is, how big it is, and how these two things change, so that they can suggest the most suitable treatment.
New imaging technology is allowing doctors to get this information quickly and in more precise ways. Our scientists are trialling a new MRI technique at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge, which could help doctors see within a day or two if a new treatment is working.
“Each person’s cancer is different and this technique could help us tailor a patient’s treatment more quickly than before,” says Professor Kevin Brindle, who is based at our Cambridge institute and co-leads the study.
By combining an MRI scanner with a dose of a special form of a molecule which tumours use for fuel, doctors can see how active cancer cells are and work out whether or not a treatment is working.
And, crucially, this could make sure patients receive the best treatment for their cancer as quickly as possible.
Are you a researcher with a high-risk, new idea that could lead to new ways of understanding, preventing, diagnosing or treating cancer? Our Pioneer Award offers £200,000 to encourage innovative ideas from any discipline that could be groundbreaking in tackling cancer. Find out more on our website.