Skip Content

PCRF founder joins CRUK Grand Challenge team investigating causes of pancreatic cancer

10 February 2017

Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund founder, Maggie Blanks, has been announced as a member of one of the first global research teams to be recipients of Cancer Research UK’s £20m Grand Challenge award.

Team lead Prof Sir Mike Stratton with Maggie Blanks

The Grand Challenge aims to help overcome the biggest challenges facing cancer research in a global effort to beat cancer sooner. The programme received applications to fund projects from more than 200 institutes, uniting 400 world-class research groups across 25 countries.

The four winning projects are set to revolutionise our understanding of cancer, and how to better prevent, diagnose and treat the disease. The international, multidisciplinary teams will bring together people, technology and knowledge on a scale that has not previously been undertaken in cancer research.

Maggie is part of the team led by Professor Sir Mike Stratton at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, with collaborators from France, USA and the UK. Her role within the team as patient advocate will ensure the interests and concerns of patients and their families are represented and that patients and the public have opportunities to engage with the project.

Things in our environment and lifestyle behaviours can cause cancer by damaging our cells’ DNA. This damage occurs in distinctive patterns – known as ‘mutational fingerprints’ – that are unique to the factor that caused the damage. For example, cancers caused by UV exposure have a different mutational fingerprint from cancers linked to tobacco.  Right now, scientists know of around 50 cancer-associated mutational fingerprints. But they only know what causes around half of them.

In a project of epic scale that spans five continents, including countries that have high and low levels of particular cancers, Professor Stratton’s team will study 5,000 pancreatic, kidney, oesophageal and bowel cancer samples to build a much deeper understanding of DNA damage – what causes it and how it leads to cancer. They want to figure out what causes the other 25 or so cancer-associated mutational fingerprints and identify which ones are due to environmental exposures and lifestyle behaviours.

They also want to figure out exactly how different environmental factors and behaviours cause cancer, and at the same time search for other cancer-associated mutational fingerprints we don’t yet know about. 

Professor Stratton said: “The main aim of our Grand Challenge is to understand the causes of cancer. Every cancer retains an archaeological trace, a record in its DNA, of what caused it. It’s that record that we want to explore to find out what caused the cancer.

“We’re going to sequence the DNA of thousands of cancer samples that have been collected from many different countries around the world, and study them to see what archaeological trace they contain.

“The thing that’s really exciting me is the challenge of making it all happen. And I’m looking forward to seeing the answers this work brings.”

Says Maggie: “We’re often asked by patients and bereaved families: ‘why did this happen?’ - but we often have no clear answer. This five-year project is a unique opportunity to finally find answers to this crucial question. If we can show that certain exposures or lifestyle behaviours cause the disease, we can take steps to avoid them.

"At Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund, our approach is to fund research to develop new ways to diagnose,treat and monitor pancreatic cancer. I’m thrilled to be involved in this hugely important international collaboration that could reveal how to prevent pancreatic cancer too.” 

Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Cancer Research UK set up the Grand Challenge awards to bring a renewed focus and energy to the fight against cancer. We want to shine a light on the toughest questions that stand in the way of progress. We’re incredibly excited to be able to support these exceptional teams as they help us achieve our ambition.”

You can read more about this research project here.

< Back