Cancer researchers join forces with astronomers using government grant

Cancer researchers join forces with astronomers using government grant

The Christie NHS Foundation, astronomers from Durham University, Roche UK and biotech company Concr are working together to advance the diagnosis and treatment of cancer of unknown primary (CUP) after being awarded a government grant of almost £1million, via Innovate UK.

The 18-month grant will fund the CUP-COMP study, which is aiming to establish a mechanism to assess and compare the impact of genomic sequencing approaches (in tissue and blood) in patients with CUP at seven NHS sites across the UK.

CUP remains the fifth most common cause of cancer death, accounting for 6% of all cancer deaths.1 Despite significant advances and new drug development for other cancers, there are no approved immunotherapies and limited targeted therapies (only NTRK inhibitors) for CUP, and just one genomic biomarker currently funded, with limited progress due to the lack of research and funding.

The collaboration brings in astronomers from Durham University who have been working with healthcare professionals to understand how statistical methods used to understand the evolution of the universe could support improvements in cancer treatment. The astronomers will help model the efficacy of cancer therapies across a range of datasets in the hope that the modelling can show how different therapies affect different cancers, enabling future prescribing to be tailored to individual patients.

Maureen Grant from Liverpool, whose CUP has been treated at the Christie as part of a different clinical trial, said: “I found out I had cancer but didn’t know where and it was very distressing. I had so many tests and the prognosis wasn’t good. Although CUP isn’t curable, it is treatable and I’m very fortunate to already be on a clinical trial specifically for CUP patients. It offered hope when I thought all was lost for me. It’s fantastic to hear there is funding for more research into this type of cancer so more people who get the disease can benefit in the future.”

John Symons, Director of Cancer of Unknown Primary Foundation said: “The ‘unknown’ element of a CUP diagnosis is particularly frustrating and frightening for patients and their family and friends. Patients understand that diagnosis is the key to effective treatment and the better the diagnosis, the better the chances of an effective therapy. CUP-COMP is an exciting, leading edge trial examining genetic changes in CUP tumours alongside blood-based biomarkers, which can help reveal the origins of a person’s cancer and predict responses to existing or new treatments. It has the potential for significant patient benefit.”

Dr James Nightingale, Post-Doctoral Researcher in Astronomy and Astrophysics, Durham University, said: “With hospital records and patient information now stored digitally, a vast amount of data is available. Through detailed analysis and modelling, we can help avoid preventable diseases, improve cancer treatments and increase efficiency in healthcare. By exchanging knowledge with our colleagues in healthcare about the use of these huge datasets we can also better analyse images of galaxies to understand the evolution of the universe and the dark matter that scientists think allows galaxies to form and grow. It’s amazing to think that something happening at the far side of the universe could have real benefits for the treatment of cancer today.”

Kelly Warrington, CUP-COMP Lead and Medical Affairs Partner at Roche Products Ltd, said: “The biggest breakthroughs in science often happen when different organisations come together to remove the barriers that stifle progress. This partnership is a perfect example of that, one that has the potential to improve how patients with CUP are diagnosed and treated.”