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Acing it: The ambitious early career researchers driving progress in cancer early detection

by Emily Armstrong | Interview

21 January 2022

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In 2019, we launched our flagship early detection initiative, the International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED), to address the challenges in this critical area of unmet clinical need. Now entering its third year, the initiative is helping to drive the expansion of the early detection research community. We meet four inspiring ACED PhD students carrying out research that could transform the ways in which we diagnose cancer in the future.

Detecting cancer at an early stage has huge potential to save lives, and while we’ve certainly made promising steps forward, meaningful progress over the years has been limited. Compared to more established fields of research, the study of early cancer biology has been historically underfunded with very few scientists and institutions prioritising it as an area of expertise.

We think mankind deserves better, and, as one of the world’s largest cancer research funders with extensive connections in the field of early detection research, we’re uniquely placed to make a huge difference. That’s why in 2019, thanks to our community of supporters, we established the International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED) – a £55 million partnership between six world-renowned institutes and organisations. They are Cancer Research UK, the University of Cambridge, University College London and the University of Manchester in the UK, and the Canary Center at Stanford University and the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University in the US. Through this major transatlantic alliance, scientists are working together at the forefront of technological innovation to translate research into realistic ways to improve cancer diagnosis. Importantly, their work aims to be implementable into health systems, so that it can meaningfully benefit people with cancer.

Key to this is strengthening and expanding the early detection community by attracting the brightest early career researchers in the field. But not only that, we must also train and retain researchers by developing world-leading training and career development standards globally. As such, the alliance has established its own PhD programme that will enable students to benefit from ACED’s unique structure and expertise. These students are co-supervised between centres, spending time at each, and will become the next generation of multidisciplinary experts in the field of early detection research.

Now two years old, the alliance is at an exciting juncture and starting to appoint these promising early career researchers. We spoke to four of them to hear about why it’s an inspiring time to be working in early detection research.

Seung Hyun Lee

ACED clinical PhD student at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute

“Survival for pancreatic cancer has hardly improved for decades. This is largely because it’s very difficult to detect, meaning it’s usually diagnosed at a late stage when treatment options are limited. I believe that finding ways to detect abnormal cells in the pancreas before they develop into cancer is the best chance we have of tackling this disease. Before my PhD, I studied medicine and surgery at Edinburgh Medical School and trained in cellular pathology in Dundee. Now, as a clinical PhD student in Manchester I combine my clinical insight with scientific research in the lab. I’m analysing pancreatic tumour cells and their surrounding environment to gain a comprehensive understanding of how these tumours evolve and become more aggressive forms of the disease. ACED offers me a huge number of educational and networking opportunities and enables me to embed myself in cross-disciplinary scientific communities in both the UK and the US. I particularly value the international focus and the way that the alliance brings expertise together from across the world. I’ve already attended many national and international early detection meetings and conferences – it’s helped me broaden my horizons.

I believe that ACED will be the key to driving progress in cancer early detection by training early career researchers like me and uniting researchers across continents to tackle this huge challenge. Without the support of our donors, none of this would be possible.”

Elspeth DaviesElspeth in her graduation robes

ACED PhD student at the University of Cambridge

“My ACED colleagues are often surprised when I tell them that I’m a social anthropologist. I study the social, historical and technological contexts in which diseases – or risk of diseases – are diagnosed. I trace how people live with these diagnoses, having been transformed from ‘people’ into ‘patients’. My project involves considering what the social costs and benefits of new diagnostic technologies might be.

Having been diagnosed with an early stage melanoma during my teenage years, the alliance’s efforts to enact a ‘stage shift’ in cancer diagnosis were particularly intriguing to me. My work considers the factors that have prompted this international move towards early detection. Due to my own experiences, I’m interested in how people live following an early cancer diagnosis, and in exploring the social navigation of lives lived ‘at risk’.

Instead of using standardised questionnaires or surveys where researchers might – overtly or unwittingly – prejudge what is relevant, anthropologists aim to listen instead to what matters to the people we study, and to consider their experiences in context. While cancer research scientists tend to detach people’s social worlds from their objects of study – such as cells – as part of being objective, social anthropologists seek to reattach these cells to the bodies, people and social worlds in which they exist. Doing so is important for understanding key issues in the field of early detection, including health inequalities: in other words, whose cancers are diagnosed early, and why as well as how this is the case.”

Hamish MacGregor

ACED PhD student at the University of Cambridge

“I’m interested in the application of physical and mathematical principles to biological systems. Through the ACED PhD programme, I discovered a fascinating collaborative project between two labs in Cambridge. My project focuses on somatic mutations in the blood – these mutations are acquired after you’re born, rather than being inherited from your parents. Somatic mutations can cause cells to divide more frequently, leading to populations of cells that expand and take over. I’m investigating the dynamics of this process in young people and am seeking to understand how it interacts with our existing understanding of genetic cancer risk, hopefully leading to more accurate assessments of cancer susceptibility.

Since the start of my project, I’ve been collaborating with colleagues in the US. Access to data from different global populations is vital for epidemiological research, and the international nature of ACED should encourage this. Although COVID-19 has limited travel opportunities, I’m still hoping to make it to the US at some point during my studies.

I’m very grateful for the philanthropic support the programme has received. My research relies heavily on data from large and detailed studies, and with DNA sequencing costs falling continually it’s clear that money donated now can go further than ever in helping to improve cancer outcomes.”

Lucie Gourmet

ACED PhD student at University College London

“The multidisciplinary nature of the ACED PhD programme allows me to combine my passion for biology with the exploration of new areas such as physics to gain a deeper understanding of cancer and its evolution. I’m studying how the cells and structures that surround a tumour – known as the tumour microenvironment – influence cancer growth. Using medical imaging and machine learning techniques, I hope to gain a better understanding of how the genetic mutations in cells and the environments around them interact with each other at an early stage to promote the development and spread of cancer. Treatment for cancer becomes very complicated when it’s diagnosed at a late stage, so research like this is crucial because detecting cancer earlier is the simplest and most efficient way to improve survival.

The transatlantic aspect of ACED fosters collaboration between research groups. During my training, I will do a placement at Stanford University in the US, to develop new skills and expertise in a wide array of state-of-the-art techniques, while also gaining insights into the global research landscape.

I’d like to thank the supporters who have given gifts to ACED. Philanthropic giving is essential for making an impact not only on people with cancer, but on researchers too. This generosity is helping to drive scientific advances, meaning that we’re now seeing people with the disease living longer.”

We’re delighted to be supporting these promising early-career researchers as they become multidisciplinary experts in early detection. ACED prioritises growing the field of early detection and recognises the importance of convening global excellence to achieve its goals. As our chief executive, Michelle Mitchell,  says “Real progress in early detection can’t be achieved by a single organisation. Benefits for patients will only be realised if early cancer detection researchers from around the world come together. No more siloes, no more missed opportunities; let us tackle this problem together and beat cancer.”