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The (un)usual suspects – how early detection research embraces interdisciplinary science

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by Cancer Research UK | Research Feature

20 August 2021

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Encouraging different scientific communities to coalesce around cancer research challenges and foster new interdisciplinary collaborations is vital if we are to develop ways to detect cancer sooner.

That was the goal of a recent workshop and networking event run by Cancer Research UK and the Royal Society of Chemistry. Analytical chemists, cancer biologists and clinicians came together to explore opportunities for early detection cancer research. Excitingly, the event resulted in two CRUK Early Detection and Diagnosis Primer Awards, designed specifically to support researchers to develop novel ideas and collaborations to make progress in the cancer early detection field.


Dr Oluwafunmilola Ola – a materials chemist takes on HPV

Exploring ways to develop high-performance, functional materials and investigating their applicability for different technologies is a guiding theme of my engineering-based research.

My Primer Award will allow me to build on my expertise in fundamental science of nanomaterials, design, fabrication, characterisation, and testing of nanostructured composites. Excitingly it will take this rapidly growing field of research in previously unexplored directions.

A key aspect of my work will be to bridge the fields of engineering, chemistry, biomedical science, and medicine to demonstrate the feasibility of a point-of-care device to screen for high-risk human papillomavirus (HPV) genotypes in cervical cancer patients.

“Few point-of-care devices have been translated from research laboratories to clinical use, largely because low levels of sensitivity and specificity in clinical samples remain stubborn challenges. It is this I want to help change.”

Current cytology-based screening and HPV tests are invasive and require advanced instrumentation, centralised laboratories, and experienced operators. However, recent advances in personalised medicine and biosensing technologies have influenced the shift to point-of-care diagnostics. But there remains a problem – few point-of-care devices have been translated from research laboratories to clinical use, largely because low levels of sensitivity and specificity in clinical samples remain stubborn challenges. It is this I want to help change.

One exciting potential solution is to develop robust and non-invasive biosensing tools that rely on electrochemistry. The advantage of real-time measurement, high selectivity, ultra-sensitivity, low cost, and simplicity which this approach offers are particularly attractive for point-of-care diagnostics.

I’m partnering with the University of Nottingham, University of Aberdeen, and two South African institutes – The University of Witwatersrand, and Tshwane University of Technology on this project. Our work will aim to develop rapid point-of-care diagnostic tools with improved sensitivity and specificity for early detection of high-risk HPV 16 and 18 genotypes via electrochemical biosensing.

Cervical cancer, caused by certain HPV genotypes, is the fourth most frequent cancer amongst women globally – with approximately 570,000 new cases reported each year. Significantly, 90% of deaths from cervical cancer reported in low and middle-income countries are linked to limited vaccination, screening, and treatment options.

Although vaccination can prevent 70% of cervical cancers attributed to high-risk HPV genotypes 16 and 18, cytology-based screening is still recommended for early detection of pre-cancerous lesions that can progress to invasive cervical cancers.

The simplicity of use and low cost of the proposed device means it has the potential to overcome barriers to screening not only in developed countries, but also developing countries where limited infrastructure and declining screening uptake are real issues. Interestingly, this will also chime with the third UN Sustainable Development Goal – Good Health and Well-being.

Oluwafunmilola obtained her PhD in Chemical Engineering from Heriot-Watt University in 2014. In 2018 she was awarded a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellowship to develop electrochemical energy storage devices. In 2020, Oluwafunmilola moved to the University of Nottingham to focus on the development of advanced materials to deliver improved performance in energy, environmental and health technologies that will address societal challenges.

Dr Charlene Greenwood – a forensic chemist tackles prostate cancer

As a material scientist who teaches on the BSc and MSci Forensic Science Programme at Keele University, I might not be the first person you would think of when considering early detection of cancer. However, as part of a CRUK Primer Award, I’ll be investigating whether changes to tissue physicochemistry can be an early indicator of prostate cancer.

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men in the UK, and as the population ages, the number of cases will continue to increase. Unfortunately, there are limitations in the accuracy of tests currently available to diagnose it, and in some cases the tests provide conflicting information. For example, high quality images taken using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), may suggest cancer is present, whilst prostate biopsy results suggest the tissue is non-cancerous. Consequently, it is not always clear if, or how, we should treat men, or whether we should monitor with blood tests and high-quality image scans using MRI. Any method of improving our ability to detect prostate cancer early is an extremely important area of research.

“This project consists of biomaterial scientists, engineers and clinicians. It’s crucial to have a multidisciplinary team when considering novel methods for early cancer detection.”

Recent studies have suggested X-ray scattering measurements – which provide information on the composition of a material – are different between normal healthy tissue and cancer, and in specific cases such as breast cancer, may even be different between high and low risk cancers. My work aims to evaluate how X-ray scattering patterns change in prostate cancer tissue. This will provide an understanding of chemical changes occurring in the tissue due to the presence of cancer. I hope that these chemical changes can provide an earlier, more accurate prostate cancer diagnosis, and will provide novel prostate cancer biomarkers based on tissue chemistry.

I will not do this alone, however. I’ll be working alongside other researchers and clinicians to complete the project. It’s crucial to have a multidisciplinary team when considering novel methods for early cancer detection. This project, for example, consists of biomaterial scientists, engineers and clinicians, who will not only provide a new insight into prostate cancer tissue physicochemistry, but also how the results and technology could be applied in a clinical setting in the future.

It’s sometimes too easy as a researcher to focus on the fundamental science in order to provide a new insight into cancer progression, but not fully consider whether your findings can be realistically applied in a clinical setting. This is why it is so important to have input from clinicians, who not only provide a wealth of clinical knowledge, but can also provide insight into the clinical relevance of your intended research.

Charlene is a Lecturer in Forensic and Analytical Chemistry at Keele University. Her project will start in February 2022, and will allow her to determine for the first time whether tissue chemistry can provide a useful additional method of early detection for prostate cancer, which would be particularly useful in cases were current clinical tests provide conflicting results.