Seven innovative research projects tackling pancreatic cancer have been awarded grants totaling £1.2M by the UK medical research charity, Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund (PCRF).
This is the fourth year that the charity has been able to allocate over £1M for research projects and brings its project portfolio spend to over £9M, with an additional £2M committed to the world's first national pancreas tissue bank, created in 2016 to further accelerate research progress.
The new projects span early diagnosis, potential new treatments and fundamental research to find out why immunotherapy does not yet work with pancreatic cancer. They include the progression of promising virotherapy research, a unique technology to tag unwanted proteins and trigger their destruction and testing whether machine learning techniques can help identify those at risk from developing the disease.
Maggie Blanks, PCRF's founder and Chief Executive, said:
Research is the only way we'll find better ways of tackling pancreatic cancer and we need to keep pushing the boundaries of different research approaches. These projects involve new ideas, new technologies and new techniques that excited our Scientific Advisory Panel and we're keen to see what they deliver."
The seven awards are:
Dr Richard Clarkson, Cardiff University
Normal cells are programmed to die if they become damaged or diseased in a process called apoptosis, but pancreatic cancer cells contain a molecule called c-FLIP which stalls this process. Dr Clarkson has shown in laboratory tests that blocking c-FLIP from working 'releases the brakes' on the anti-tumour process. He now wants to see if this works in mice with pancreatic tumours and will test new ways to block c-FLIP.
Professor Laura Itzhaki, University of Cambridge
Cells stay healthy by tagging faulty proteins with a molecule called ubiquitin that acts like an address label, sending the proteins to be destroyed by the cell's waste-disposal machinery. Prof Itzhaki has developed a technology that mimics this process, forcing ubiquitin to attach to selected proteins and trigger their destruction. This project will test if the technology can eliminate proteins produced by a faulty gene called KRAS, which is found in many pancreatic cancers.
Dr Gunnel Halldén, Queen Mary University of London
Dr Halldén is progressing her PCRF-funded research which aims to use a flu-like virus, delivered into the bloodstream, to seek out and infect pancreatic cancer cells wherever they are in the body. This project will identify new drugs that improve the ability of the virus to replicate inside the cancer cells and spread within the tumour, which should stimulate the immune system to provide long-term protection from the disease coming back.
Dr Naomi Walsh, Dublin City University, Ireland
Dr Walsh aims to design chemotherapy drugs that will target and kill types of cancer stem cells within pancreatic tumours that are responsible for drug resistance and relapse. These drugs are designed using new techniques which enable them to be transported directly into the cancer cells. This means that patients could be given smaller doses and experience fewer side effects. It may also allow more patients to benefit from these new treatments.
Dr Laura Woods, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine
Dr Woods's project addresses the challenge of diagnosing pancreatic cancer earlier. She will apply 'machine learning' techniques to an historic, anonymised database of thousands of GP records to examine whether people who later developed pancreatic cancer shared similar early warning signs detectable before diagnosis. This could provide means of identifying a population of patients whom it would be cost-effective to screen, and increase the number of cancers diagnosed at a treatable stage.
Professor Maeve Lowery, Trinity College Dublin
Some pancreatic cancer patients have faults in genes involved in repairing DNA, such as the BRCA2 gene, which makes the cancer more likely to respond to certain treatments. Professor Lowery will study tumour samples to find changes in different regions of these genes and assess how this affects the response to drugs which target defective DNA repair. She hopes the results will inform a clinical trial where patients are matched with drugs most likely to benefit them.
Professor Hemant Kocher, Queen Mary University of London
Professor Kocher's project will investigate why immunotherapy - a treatment which harnesses the patient's immune system to kill cancer cells - works with some cancers but not with pancreatic cancer. The team will investigate how immune cells interact with each other and are either triggered or dampened in pancreatic cancer. The aim of this project is to determine the most effective way of combining immunotherapy and chemotherapy in future pancreatic cancer clinical trials.