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£1 million awarded for new UK research into pancreatic cancer

12 March 2013

Six exciting new research projects totalling just under £1 million have been awarded grants by the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund – thanks to the tireless fundraising of the charity’s supporters across the UK.

The awards bring the total number of research projects funded by the UK’s only dedicated funder of pancreatic cancer research to 27 since 2006 – some  £4 million worth, and all of these funded entirely by donations.

Says PCRF founder and CEO, Maggie Blanks: “To be able to invest
£1 million in a single funding round is phenomenal, and I hope all our supporters who’ve fundraised for us understand just what an amazing achievement they’ve enabled through their hard work.”

Pancreatic cancer has the worst survival rate of any common cancer – just 3% of those diagnosed will live for 5 years. With non-specific symptoms only generally presenting when the cancer is already advanced, up to 90% of patients are diagnosed too late for surgery, which is the only potential cure.

In the past few years, research teams from around the world, including those funded by PCRF, have made great strides in unravelling and understanding the fundamental molecular mechanisms of this highly aggressive disease. The Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund’s Scientific Advisory Panel believes that this should be matched by funding projects that are more ‘translational’, such as those progressing towards clinical trials and closer to delivering patient benefits.

Says Professor Nick Lemoine, Chair of PCRF’s Scientific Advisory Panel:
“I am genuinely optimistic about the progress being made in pancreatic cancer research. We have much new knowledge and many new technologies at our disposal that we didn’t have just a few years ago. I believe that it is possible to achieve the goal of doubling the survival rate for patients with this cancer within the next few years, and the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund is enabling the UK to play a significant role in this.”

The six projects are as follows:

Dr Thorsten Hagemann, from Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary, University of London, will examine the role of a newly described population of regulatory B cells, which play a central role in suppressing the body’s immune response and have shown to promote tumour growth in animal models. Dr Hagemann’s £180K 3-year study will look to confirm the cells’ role in human tumour development, defining the sequence of chemical interactions that regulate their function, which he believes may offer a new target for designing new immunotherapies.

Dr Yaohe Wang, from Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary, University of London, will use his £180K for a 2-year project to engineer the Vaccinia virus – safely used to prevent smallpox in millions of people - to infect and kill pancreatic cancer tumours, leaving healthy tissue unharmed. His previous PCRF research identified that the Vaccinia virus was effective against some forms of pancreatic cancer cells in laboratory tests, so he now aims to use the virus to activate an immune response against these cancer cells to both kill the cancer cells and prevent them returning.

Dr John Marshall, from Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary, University of London, has secured £180k for a 3-year project that builds on previous PCRF-funded research. Dr Marshall identified a molecule known as integrin alpha v beta 6 (avb6) that is found on the surface of cancerous pancreatic cells (but not normal pancreas cells) and allows them to invade healthy tissues more easily. In laboratory tests, he also found antibodies to stop avb6 from working properly and this prevented them from moving, invading and growing. The new PCRF funding will allow him to progress the tests using specially bred mice that get pancreatic cancer which closely mimics the development of the human form of the disease.   Furthermore, Dr Marshall hopes to develop a new strain of mice which lack avb6 completely, to see if these mice are unable to develop pancreatic cancer. If this is the case, then this study may provide enough data to allow the development of clinical trials using antibodies to block avb6.

Dr Steve Pereira, from UCL, will use his grant of £160K in a 2-year project that he hopes will lead to a new way of diagnosing pancreatic cancer and predicting a patient’s prognosis. Cancer cells have the ability to absorb up to fifty times more glucose than normal cells, using two enzymes known as M2PK and LDH-A to break it down to produce the energy they need to grow. Dr Pereira believes that detecting the presence of these enzymes could be a good biomarker to both diagnose and predict the aggressiveness of the tumour type and his project will measure the levels of these enzymes in blood from patients.  He will also conduct tests in cell lines and mice to see whether novel drugs that block the enzymes’ actions are effective, either alone or in combination with standard chemotherapy treatments.  

Professor Lindy Durrant, from The University of Nottingham has received £130K for a 2-year project to progress her work in harnessing certain types of sugars found only on the surface of tumours and engineering antibodies that bind to them, stimulating an immune response against the tumour.  To date, Professor Durrant and her team have engineered five novel antibodies that are specific to pancreatic cancer types and hopes to create two more. PCRF funding will also allow the team to test their effectiveness in killing tumours in animal models, before genetically engineering them to work with human pancreatic cancer. 

Professor Caroline Dive and her team, from Cancer Research UK's Paterson Institute based at The University of Manchester, will analyse stray tumour cells that circulate in the blood. She hopes that her 2-year, £150k project will pave the way to profiling the molecular characteristics of patients’ pancreatic tumours from a single blood test.  From this information, she ultimately hopes to set up clinical trials to both tailor treatments for individual patients, based on the analysis of their tumour type, and monitor the success of their treatment regime.

Says Mrs Blanks: “In the early years of the charity, our research focus was more on basic research to understand the molecular biology of the disease. This was important, since research into pancreatic cancer has historically lagged behind that of other cancers. But now there’s a feeling amongst the research community that we talk to that we’re on the cusp of making breakthroughs that will finally start to improve the prognosis of this cancer.”

 “In this last award round we saw a significant rise in the number of grant applications, which means that there are growing numbers of researchers turning their attention to the challenge of pancreatic cancer. These six projects are the very best of those submitted and we look forward to working with the research teams to drive forward the understanding of this disease and make good progress towards developing new therapies to treat it.”

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