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Digging for early detection success in our sandpit workshops

by Phil Prime | Research Feature

13 April 2021

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Researchers gather to generate ideas at a sandpit workshop

Detecting cancer earlier is not easy. In fact, only 25% of cancers in the UK are detected and diagnosed at stage 1, when treatments are more effective and lead to improved survival rates.

In order to detect more cancers at earlier stages, we need innovative ideas to solve many complex biological and technological problems. To do this we need to inspire those with different types of expertise to work alongside cancer researchers to create new interdisciplinary research teams. That can be a challenge when these researchers are yet to even meet.

Since 2018, Alexis Webb, research programme manager for early detection and diagnosis, and her team at Cancer Research UK (CRUK) have run a series of sandpit innovation workshops designed to overcome this very problem. “Our sandpits have united researchers from chemistry, engineering, physics, and computational sciences backgrounds with cancer biologists, epidemiologists, pathologists, and clinicians,” she says.

Over the course of a three-day workshop, sandpit participants meet new collaborators, generate lots of new ideas, and have a chance to be awarded seed funding to tackle a challenge in cancer early detection.

“A strategic vision for CRUK is to bring together engineering and physical sciences with biology and medicine,” says Alexis. “Uniting a variety of perspectives in new ways will result in novel technology for early detection steeped in an understanding of the biological and clinical problems, which is much more likely to have real impact.”

To run these innovative events, we’ve partnered with other funders including the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Science and Technologies Facilities Council, and Pancreatic Cancer UK. This helps us reach into new communities and build new relationships with researchers who haven’t previously worked in cancer.

So, what is it like to take part in a sandpit workshop? We invited some previous participants to tell us just that…

Dr George Mylonas: “After two very intense days filled with various activities, suddenly order was born out of chaos” – A robotic engineer’s perspective

When I found out that my application to attend the CRUK sandpit was successful, my expectation was that this would be like any other workshop. There was every chance, I thought, I’d be yawning my way through endless talks and slides, only to be woken by the occasional break-out session and coffee break.

How wrong I was.

On the first morning, things immediately looked different. The initial task was to pair-up and draw each other… without looking at our hands, whilst making sure we didn’t lift the pen from the paper. I won’t give away any of the other activities that followed over the next three days of the workshop, but I have to say the ‘weirdness’ factor never left us.

After two intense days filled with various activities, and me failing to identify any emerging patterns that would help figure out the organisers’ mysterious plans, suddenly order was born out of chaos. An initial project idea I’d suggested had now attracted four potential co-investigators. Each, by bringing their unique experiences and academic background, was able to breathe life into it and give it a new spin. Together, we conceived the Vibr-O-scope. This is a concept based on using soft robotics and sensors for multimodal early detection of premalignant and malignant colonic lesions.

Since its conception, the Vibr-O-scope project has kept us busy and creative, with some encouraging early results. Our seed funding will allow us to run preliminary experiments to test how our prototype works, which will help provide evidence to submit for follow-on funding for further investigations.

The sandpit was a very interesting and rewarding experience on many levels, which I highly recommend. What initially felt like a collection of scattered activities magically turned out to be a well-orchestrated and well-conducted process. And it was one that certainly managed to generate ideas and approaches that resonated amongst participants from diverse backgrounds.

George is a lecturer in robotics and technology in cancer at Imperial College London in the Faculty of Medicine. In 2019, he attended a CRUK sandpit on robotics, and was part of a team designing a vibrating probe for endoscopes that could help detect flatter lesions which are harder for endoscopists to spot.

Dr Pilar Acedo: “The creation of interdisciplinary and revolutionary projects in just a few days was only possible because of the unique environment” – A biologist’s perspective

Participating in the sandpit scheme was a unique opportunity for me to build innovative projects from scratch, sharing my expertise in a multidisciplinary atmosphere. I’m glad I got to take part in this early on in my career.

I attended a virtual workshop, but despite this we still had many opportunities to interact with all the participants, mentors and facilitators – and the support team was fantastic. It really was a great learning experience and, also, a real adventure.

One of the things that I was most impressed by was the freedom to mould research ideas. I liked that everyone’s research inputs had the same value, from early career researchers to those made by senior participants. It was great to be part of a group of scientists from a variety of disciplines working together, racing against time, to identify new possibilities.

The creation of interdisciplinary and revolutionary projects in just a few days was only possible because of the unique environment provided by the sandpit. By the end of the sandpit, I was involved in three multidisciplinary projects.

I’ll be leading the EDPAN feasibility study aiming to improve early detection of pancreatic cancer through personalised assessment of risk. It’ll use clinical and demographic information combined with non-invasive infrared spectroscopy and immuno-profiling of urine and blood samples from different cohorts.

I’m also a member of the EXPAND project, which will identify and characterise volatile organic compounds contained in extracellular vesicles produced by pancreatic tumours, and its associated microbiome.

I will also participate in the PANANOMRI project. This will combine imaging, nanotechnology, cell biology and AI, to improve magnetic resonance imaging in patients with premalignant pancreatic cancer.

If you think you might like to be involved in a future sandpit, I would recommend being open-minded and listening to other participants; their ideas will improve yours. The process is demanding but it is highly rewarding.

Pilar is a senior research fellow at University College London’s Institute for Liver & Digestive Health. In 2020, she attended a sandpit on pancreatic cancer. She is leading one funded team and participating in two others that also received funding.

Professor Bhavik Patel: “The event should be considered as something broader than just funding. It helps change your mindset” ­– a chemist’s perspective

The workshop I attended was, in a word, liberating. Being in a new environment and immersing yourself in something very different from normal research activities fostered real creativity.

I was keen to apply as the sandpit seemed to offer a great chance to meet new people, forge collaborations and provide some out-of-the-box thinking for a specific area.

And I was certainly right about that. It made me consider different ways of exploring the boundaries of my own research and how these interface with other disciplines.

The sandpit approach was both refreshing and intense at the same time. It really did make me think in a new way about how to approach developing research ideas. I would have most likely never met or reached out to work with people from such a wide range of disciplines.

One of the surprising things about the process was how it was possible to generate such great ideas in such a short time. Also, it really did give me a new perspective on how to work with multidisciplinary groups. Finding common ground without compromising was an essential part of the way that projects came together to be highly exciting and, hopefully, impactful.

The project I’m working on that grew out of the sandpit is based on using sensor technology in liquid biopsies through the determination of extracellular vesicles. Technologies that can determine the specific cargo within an extracellular vesicle could, potentially, provide a route towards the early detection of cancer.

Without the sandpit, there is no way I would have even considered working on a project of this nature or with the other members of the team who have developed into amazing collaborators.

If you have an interest, then just get involved. The event should be considered as something broader than just funding. It helps change your mindset.

Bhavik is a professor at the University of Brighton’s School of Pharmacy and Biomolecular Science. In 2018 he attended a CRUK sandpit focussing on liquid biopsies. His team developed new technology that is currently being assessed by our Commercial Partnerships team for patentability.

Chris Macdonald: “The format made me rethink my preconceived and relatively conventional approaches to funding research” – a research funder’s perspective

Coming into this I had very little idea of what to expect. Organising an event like this as a funder is one thing but getting the community to engage with it is quite another. That can be a source of sleepless nights.

There was also the added anxiety in 2020 of how to make the format work when the workshop was virtual. So, I was thrilled to see a community seize the freedom to innovate with both hands and collaborate with other researchers from very different areas of expertise.

It was fascinating to see participants feel their way into discussion, cautiously gauge one another and then embrace this way of working. On reflection, I would say that those who are most capable of deconstructing their predilections towards what you research and how you conduct that research, fare best in this environment.

You also had to commit. I think I clocked up over 50 hours of Zoom time in four days, while some of the participants will have spent even longer. Although it may have been intense, that same intensity drove the development of incredibly innovative approaches towards detection of pancreatic cancer.

As much as we challenged the researchers who participated, I was challenged as well. The format made me rethink my preconceived and relatively conventional approaches to funding research. To drive real innovation through research funding schemes is actually really difficult. All of the usual approaches ensure very pragmatic decisions are made, and that is right for most schemes, but innovation and pragmatism don’t always sit well together. It can be a challenge to get the right balance. However, this format encouraged innovation and bold thinking, recognised it in the review process and, crucially, rewarded it.

Would we do it again? In just over three days, we got five unique and innovative multidisciplinary studies that have brought new people, expertise, relationships and energy into our field. That, I am convinced, can bring about more effective detection of pancreatic cancer faster than before. Do it again? I have already started planning the next one…

Chris is head of research at Pancreatic Cancer UK; the charity partnered with CRUK on developing and delivering the pancreatic cancer sandpit.

Early detection of pancreatic cancer sandpit winning teams

In December 2020, Cancer Research UK teamed up with Pancreatic Cancer UK and The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council to run a sandpit workshop on the early detection of pancreatic cancer.

Here are the funded teams:

Team PANANOMRI: Early detection of premalignant pancreatic cancer using multifunctional targeted nanoparticles for MR imaging with super-resolution reconstruction and MR fingerprinting

This project will undertake the development of magnetic nanoparticles and novel magnetic resonance techniques to improve diagnostic potential for early pancreatic lesions.

Team EXPAND: Enriched exosomal signatures for pancreatic cancer early detection

This project will deploy in vitro and in vivo models to study exosomal biomarkers and the microbiome, and will test detection of volatile organic compounds from extracellular vesicles as a biomarker for pancreatic cancers.

Team RETHOMS: Real-time high-sensitivity optrode metabolic sensor for pancreatic cyst fluids

This project will build and test optrodes, optical sensors with integrated electrodes for chemical transductance, to detect metabolic products indicative of early cancer from pancreatic cell lines and pancreatic cyst fluid.

Team EDPAN Screening tool: Earlier detection of pancreatic cancer through personalised assessment of risk combined with non-invasive infrared spectroscopy

This project will generate a personalised pancreatic cancer risk stratification strategy, combining clinical and demographic information with infrared spectroscopy-based analysis of serum and urine samples, together with immune profiling.

Team PANC-CYS-GAN: A multimodal longitudinal generative adversarial network (GAN) to discriminate high-risk cysts for the early detection of pancreatic cancer

This project will build a generative adversarial network (GAN) explainable machine learning algorithm, to generate and validate plausible hypotheses using data from patients (e.g. symptoms/signs, demographic, medical history, medications, CT/MRI-based radiomics analysis, lifestyle, etc.) for detecting transformation from pancreatic cysts into cancers.

Download the pancreatic sandpit report

If you’d like to take part in one of our early detection sandpit workshops, or would like further information then please get in touch with the team at [email protected].

Find out more about our sandpit workshops