School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Science

Professor Paddy Johnston, Head of the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Science
Professor Paddy Johnston, Head of the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Science
Professor Peter Hamilton in Queen's £2.2 million Bioimaging lab
Professor Peter Hamilton in Queen's £2.2 million Bioimaging lab
Breakthrough therapies to regress breast tumour growth, new methods of delivering radiation oncology and the identification of genes which trigger the rapid spread of cancerous tumours via the bloodstream to other tissues in the body, are just some of the important areas of world-class research being carried out at Queen’s in the area of cancer research.

The work is being undertaken by researchers at Queen’s £25 million Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB).

World-renowned oncologist Professor Paddy Johnston, Dean of the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Science at Queen’s said: “A concerted worldwide effort is needed if we are to combat cancer, and already the international research partnerships occurring at Queen’s CCRCB have accelerated the pace and quality of cancer research worldwide. Over 300 researchers in the Centre have forged partnerships across the globe to ease the human suffering caused by cancer.

“The funding that will ensue from the Centre’s latest RAE world-class ranking will aid work in several areas, including a new way of delivering radiation oncology known as micro-particle beam technology and also in the area of predictive diagnostic and biomarker tools for early and accurate diagnosis of the disease.”

Breast cancer research is one of the major areas of work in the Centre, with research on the regulation of growth control providing the focus for one team. The team are working to discover how a gene which acts as a tumour suppressor (BRCA1) and which also has the potential to determine how breast cancers will respond to chemotherapy treatments, can be used in more effective therapies to target the disease. Work is also progressing on developing new therapies which will disrupt the activity of a gene known as TBX2, which is associated with the most aggressive forms of breast cancer. The eventual aim is to develop treatments that will result in the regression of breast tumour growth.

Explaining how the testing of such treatments is also of importance to the Centre, Professor Johnston added: “Clinical trials are a key component of our research and early clinical trials (ECTs) are a major focus for us within the Northern Ireland Cancer Clinical Trials Unit (NICCTU). We run ECTs in patients with any advanced solid tumour, but also aim to have early phase trials in first, second and third-line treatment of common cancers.”

Colin James, Consultant/Senior Lecturer in Oncology in the CCRCB explained further about the importance of the Centre’s work on clinical trials for patients: “Clinical research is a very important component of cancer research and is essential in allowing the translation of scientific discoveries made in CCRCB’s laboratories into clinically relevant findings that can directly benefit our patients.

“Access to clinical trials is not only important in improving treatment but also allows patients access to the newest agents and technologies. The Northern Ireland Cancer Clinical Trials Unit is part of the CCRCB and works within the Belfast Trust and the Northern Ireland Cancer Centre. We currently recruit approximately 700 patients to clinical trials each year.”

Researchers at Queen’s are currently working on clinical trials investigating new drugs in breast cancer within the NICCTU.

Dr James added: “For example, we participated in a global multi-centre trial of the novel tyrosine kinase inhibitor Lapatinib in patients with Her2 over expressing metastatic breast cancer. In addition, a number of further trials will soon open to recruitment including one that will tell if a new type of biomarker can predict how well a patient will benefit from chemotherapy. Known as Tailor X, this trial is being run in collaboration with ICORG (Ireland) and ECOG (USA).

“Belfast has been designated as one of only 17 Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres within the UK. It is our aim to continue to improve our portfolio of early phase clinical trials, our translational research programme and to develop clinical research investigating molecular biomarker driven trials in order to improve prognostic and predictive tools used in designing treatment strategies that can be individualised to each patient.”

Dr Dean Fennel is leading a worldwide study on non small cell lung cancer to try and predict patients who will have recruitant disease after surgery. This project is using state-of-the-art genetic signatures to determine if we can predict those patients susceptible to recruit disease and so treat these individuals more aggressively.

Dr. Mohamed El-Tanani from CCRCB has worked with colleagues in the University of Liverpool on the identification of novel metastagenes (RAN GTPase and osteopontin) which trigger the rapid spread of cancerous tumours via the bloodstream to other tissues in the body.

He explained how the latest RAE results could eventually benefit cancer patients: “The spread of cancer from the initial tumour is the key contributor to the death of a patient. Those with breast and other common cancers die not from the primary tumour but from disseminated disease. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are often the only options available to treat the resulting ‘secondary’ tumours but these procedures can damage healthy tissue and do not always succeed in eradicating the cancer.

“Metastagenes are fundamental to the process by which cancers spread. They are found in most common cancers, including breast, lung and colon. If these genes are over-expressed in the cancerous tumour, early death of the patient is much more likely. The funding that will follow from this RAE endorsement of our work will allow us to take the next major step in developing the drugs that will switch off the action of these genes and success in this goal would help stop the spread of the primary tumour, improving patients’ chances of survival.”

CCRCB was opened in November 2007. Along with the Northern Ireland Clinical Cancer Centre at Belfast City Hospital, it makes Belfast one of Europe’s leaders in the battle against cancer in the 21st Century. CCRCB has many international links including joint studentships with National Cancer Institute-designated centres, including Georgetown University, and with the National Institute of Immunology, Delhi, India.

Professor Dennis McCance, Director of CCRCB says that "CCRCB scientists are working in areas from basic research to research that will have immediate impact on how cancer patients are diagnosed and treated. The RAE results show that our research effort is world-class and we are a leading centre in the fight against cancer."

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