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Cancer blood tests and learning from HIV – our latest Pioneer Awards

by Catherine Pickworth | Analysis

29 September 2017

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Our latest round of Pioneer Award winners are tackling some of the biggest questions in cancer research, submitted to our panel of experts in a short and snappy pitch.

In our 6th round we’ve funded 4 new projects, and here’s what they will be investigating.

Drawing parallels between HIV and lung cancer – Professor Charles Swanton and Dr Jonathan Hare

HIV and cancer may seem like very different medical challenges. But probe a little deeper and similarities come to light, particularly in how they each escape and exhaust the body’s immune system.

“Some rules of nature are universal across different diseases,” explains Swanton. “Both HIV and cancers evolve, and we want to look at them side-by-side.”

Professor Swanton and Dr Hare

In both situations, the immune system has to adapt in response to changing cancer cells or infection with the virus. And some of these adaptations may be shared in response to cancer and HIV infection.

Using a new computer algorithm, together with data from Swanton’s TRACERx lung cancer study and Hare’s work with HIV, they hope to find these shared adaptations, potentially unearthing new targets for drugs.

“We’re breaking down the barriers between the two diseases,” says Hare. “Now we’re beginning to connect the dots to help both cancer patients and people with HIV.”

Stopping cancer at inception – Dr Yi Feng

Healthy cells in the body sometimes undergo changes, which can be an early step towards cancer.

Dr Feng

But research in zebrafish and flies has revealed that rather than alerting the immune system, these changes can instead make immune cells take on a nurturing role, helping the pre-cancerous cells grow and develop into cancerous tumours.

At the University of Edinburgh, Dr Yi Feng has been working with zebrafish to spy on how immune cells and pre-cancerous cells interact.

“Zebrafish are very similar to humans in the way their immune system works,” explains Feng. “We hope that using these fish could be a way to help identify potential drugs to stop pre-cancerous cells becoming cancerous in the first place, by testing thousands or even tens of thousands of drugs.”

Feng hopes the approach reveals potential new ways to prevent cancer developing.

Killing liver cancer cells with experimental gene therapy – Dr Carin Ingemarsdotter and Professor Andrew Lever

Liver cancer is a big challenge, particularly in advanced cases where drugs can stop working.

At the University of Cambridge, Dr Carin Ingemarsdotter and Professor Andrew Lever are trying to find a way to overcome this.

“We want to insert a gene into liver cancer cells to make them susceptible to a specific drug,” explains Lever.

Professor Lever and Dr Ingemarsdotter

And to do this, they are adapting a gene editing technology in the lab in liver cancer cells. They are designing a technique that will allow them to insert a particular gene into liver cancer cells, and avoid affecting healthy cells.

Once they have developed the technique in the laboratory, the next steps will be to test it in different models of disease. But they also plan to look beyond that disease.

“We hope the technique we develop may one day help people with liver cancer, but also be a potential therapy for many other cancers too,” says Lever.

Developing a blood ‘nanotest’ for cancer – Professor Kostas Kostarelos

Blood samples offer an easy way to access a potential goldmine of information about our health, particularly in relation to cancer. But our blood contains so much information it can be hard to sift out the most important parts.

Professor Kostas Kostarelos

Professor Kostas Kostarelos and Research Fellow Marilena Hadjidemetriou, in collaboration with Professor Caroline Dive, all based at the University of Manchester, have joined a global push to find new ways of mining blood samples for information about cancer. And to do this his team is going to be using tiny nanoparticles.

“We want to amplify cancer signals in the blood that would otherwise be buried among all this other information,” says Kostarelos.

His team will be looking for molecules that stick to the nanoparticles in blood samples from mice with cancer. Kostarelos then plans to “fish out” the nanoparticles and study the sticky molecules for signals from the growing cancer.

Their team hopes the molecules they find will point to early warning signs, or ‘biomarkers’, of cancer that could one day be developed in to a test.


  • These projects are examples of those funded by our Pioneer Award. Applications are welcomed to the Pioneer Award scheme from any scientist, regardless of discipline, career stage or track record.
  • You can read about our previous Pioneer Awards, funded since November 2015 here: Round 1, Round 2, Round 3, Round 4 and Round 5.
  • If you’re a researcher you can find out more about this award on our website.