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Queen’s Researchers in £5 Million Programme to Improve Bowel Cancer Survival

Professor Mark Lawler

Researchers at Queen’s University Belfast have launched a revolutionary personalised treatment programme to help improve bowel cancer survival rates.

The £5 million initiative aims to fundamentally change how we treat bowel cancer patients, both in the UK and around the world, by personalising their treatments and ensuring that each patient gets access to the most effective therapies. 

The S-CORT Consortium, jointly launched and funded by Medical Research Council (MRC) and Cancer Research UK (CRUK), will employ the latest state-of-the-art techniques to define the genetic make-up of bowel cancer cells, collected from over 2,000 patients from large clinical trials, and use the information to develop personalised care plans for individual cancer patients.

More than 41,500 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer each year in the UK. One of the consortium’s key aims is to allow the most effective therapies to be delivered to newly-diagnosed bowel cancer patients.

Professor Mark Lawler, Chair of Translational Cancer Genomics at Queen’s University Belfast’s Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) and Queen’s lead on the programme, said: “This Precision Medicine approach, where we match the right patient to the right treatment, has the potential to revolutionise how we treat this deadly disease.  It will also allow us to spare patients the often debilitating side effects of ineffective therapies, thus improving their quality of life.”

Professor Patrick Johnston, Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s and a principal investigator of the S-CORT Consortium, said: “I am delighted that Queen’s researchers are playing such a prominent role in a UK-wide collaborative programme that has the potential to significantly improve the lives of bowel cancer patients.  This is further evidence of Queen’s University leading on world class research which will have a lasting impact around the globe.”

Head of the S-CORT Consortium, Professor Tim Maughan, based at the University of Oxford, said: “Bowel cancer survival has more than doubled in the last 40 years. But there is still a lot more work to do.  Recognising this challenge, we have brought together key partners to develop new ways to tailor treatment to the patients who will benefit the most, and make a significant difference to their chances of beating this common disease.”

Margaret Grayson, Chair of the Northern Ireland Cancer Research Consumer Forum, said:  “We are very excited to be an active part of this research programme that has a clear line of sight to us, the cancer patients.”

Craigavon based biotech company, Almac Diagnostics are a key partner in the initiative. Professor Richard Kennedy, McClay Professor of Experimental Medicine (CCRCB) at Queen’s and Vice-President and Medical Director of Almac Diagnostics, said: “We see the potential for industry and  academia to work together in partnership to develop new tests that will predict which patients will respond to different therapies.  This research has the potential not only to improve patient outcomes in Northern Ireland and across the UK, it also can contribute to the local economy.”

The announcement is made during Bowel Cancer Awareness month and represents a significant commitment from MRC and CRUK in developing a more personalised medicine strategy in this common cancer.

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Queen’s Leads International Research Programme in Precision Cancer Medicine

Queen’s University Belfast is leading a major new international initiative into modern cancer care medicine which was announced in Washington D.C.

Researchers from Queen’s University’s world-class Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) in partnership with researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in Washington are working together to deliver a £2.5M 4 year PhD programme in Precision Cancer Medicine.

Precision Cancer Medicine  utilises our increased biological understanding of  cancer to drive a more selective approach, ensuring patients receive therapeutically effective treatment based on their genetic make-up, while avoiding treatment-related side effects. CCRCB has established an innovative Academia-Industry-Healthcare Precision Cancer Medicine  pipeline that is delivering new diagnostics and new therapies for cancer patients.   

The innovative Doctoral Training Programme in Precision Cancer Medicine will initially provide 12 Queen’s students with an unrivalled opportunity to perform cutting edge research at a world renowned cancer institution, positioning them as future leaders in an area that is revolutionising how we deliver 21st century medicine to cancer patients.

Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, Professor Patrick Johnston said: "It is extremely exciting to be announcing this initiative here in Washington. It provides significant opportunities for students to be exposed to state-of-the-art technologies and receive quality mentorship from researchers both at the NCI and at Queen’s and it is further evidence of how Queen’s researchers are continuing to advance knowledge and change lives at a global level."

Dr Stephen Chanock, Chief, Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, NCI said: "We welcome this opportunity for Northern Ireland students to come to the National Institutes of Health. They will join with fellow graduate students from many parts of the world in an academic milieu that will encourage research excellence."  

In this Doctoral Training Programme, PhD students will not only acquire specialist research skills, but will also be exposed to entrepreneurship, innovation and leadership training, as part of a collaboration between the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences,  the Queen’s University Management School and the William J Clinton Leadership Institute at Queen’s.

"This cross faculty, interdisciplinary PhD Programme is an excellent example of the type of modern postgraduate degree that we are now offering to students attending Queen’s." said Professor Margaret Topping, Dean of Queen’s Graduate School.

Professor David Waugh, Director, CCRCB said: "Doctoral training is a key component of our Precision Cancer Medicine Programme. Partnering with researchers at the NCI not only enhances the student experience, but also provides significant opportunities for future research collaborations with CCRCB scientists."

Professor Mark Lawler, Associate Director of Postgraduate Studies at CCRCB and chief architect of the programme said: "This vibrant Doctoral Training Programme actively encourages excellence with impact, delivering a cadre of innovative, business-aware and socially responsible scientists who will compete successfully in the evolving global research and bio-industry communities. It provides Northern Ireland students with a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to further their careers at a world famous cancer institution and deliver research with global impact."

For Further Information Please contact Professor Mark Lawler Associate Director of Postgraduate Studies, CCRCB and Director of the Doctoral Training programme in Precision Cancer Medicine.

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CCRCB Open Day - Saturday 9 May 2015

Find out how we are curing cancer in Belfast at our free Open Day.  This is a unique opportunity for you to meet the researchers, go behind the scenes in our labs, and find out more about cancer research.    

Come along and experience our local cancer research brought to life by the researchers themselves. See how researchers in Belfast are working together to discover and pioneer new cancer treatments.

There will be interactive activities suitable for all ages including children (* Please note due to health and safety regulations, young adults and children will need to be supervised by a responsible adult at all times in the Centre.)

Date – Saturday 9 May 2015
Time: 11am – 3pm
Venue – Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology, Queen’s University Belfast

Please visit the CCRCB Open Day page for more information and registration details. 

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CCRCB Researchers in BBC Documentary

Our cancer researchers have featured in a BBC One documentary on The Truth About Cancer, presented by Stephen Nolan. The researchers spoke about their work and the advances in modern science which are giving cancer patients a higher rate of survival.

If you missed it, you can watch the documentary here.

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Queen's Vice Chancellor Receives Prestigious Accolade

Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, Professor Patrick Johnston, has been awarded an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RSCI).

Founded in 1784, the RSCI is a world renowned medical institution, providing extensive education and training in the healthcare professions for students in Ireland.

The award, the highest distinction the RSCI bestows, was presented to Professor Johnston in recognition of his contribution to cancer research. A globally-recognised cancer specialist over the last 20 years, Professor Johnston, from Derry, has also led the development of a world-leading Institute of Health Sciences at Queen’s University.

His research has resulted in a number of prestigious landmark publications, over 20 patents and almost £100 million in grants being secured from research and philanthropic bodies.

Professor Johnston was presented with the award by RCSI President, Declan J Magee, at a conferring ceremony at RCSI in Dublin, on February 7, 2015.

Commenting on the distinguished accolade, Professor Johnston said: “I am delighted to have received an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. It is a privilege to have received this honour and to have had my contribution to cancer research recognised in this way.”

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Bowel Cancer Breakthrough May Benefit Thousands of Patients

Researchers at Queen’s University have made a significant breakthrough that may benefit patients with bowel cancer. 

Dr Sandra van Schaeybroeck and her team have discovered how two genes cause bowel cancer cells to become resistant to treatments used against the disease. The research, which was funded by Cancer Research UK, was published this month in the prestigious international journal Cell Reports.

The activity of the two genes, called MEK and MET, was uncovered when the researchers looked at all the different pathways and interactions taking place in bowel cancer cells.

Dr van Schaeybroeck and her group found that these bowel cancers switch on a survival mechanism when they are treated with drugs that target faulty MEK genes. But when the researchers added drugs that also block the MET gene, the bowel cancer cells died.  The team are now testing a new approach to target these two genes in the most aggressive forms of bowel cancer in a European Commission funded clinical trial that is being led by Dr van Schaeybroeck.

Currently over 40,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer in the UK each year and over 16,000 patients die of the disease. More than half of patients develop the aggressive form of the disease which does not respond to standard therapy, the five year overall survival in this patient group is less than five per cent.

Study author Dr Sandra van Schaeybroeck, from the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) at Queen’s University, said: “We have discovered how two key genes contribute to aggressive bowel cancer. Understanding how they are involved in development of the disease has also primed the development of a potential new treatment approach for this disease.” 

Queen’s University Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick Johnston, said: “Understanding the genes that cause bowel cancer is a key focus of our research. Our discoveries in this deadly disease have identified a new route to clinical application for cancer patients.”

Professor David Waugh, Director of the CCRCB at Queen’s, said: “The publication of this research by Dr van Schaeybroeck and her team demonstrates our commitment to performing excellent science here in Belfast that can be directly translated to the clinic.”

The clinical trial, which is called MErCuRIC and is due to start in September, will deliver personalised medicine to Northern Irish patients and patients from other European countries. Overall, the pan European collaborative effort will involving 13 research/clinical teams from nine European countries.

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CCRCB Scientists’ Effort to Beat Blood Cancer Receives Funding Boost

Scientists at the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology have been awarded a £126,000 grant by blood cancer charity Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research for research to improve treatments for blood cancer patients.

The two year research project will be led by Professor Ken Mills, Dr Kienan Savage, Professor Mary Frances McMullin and Dr Fabio Liberante. They will develop new treatments that are more effective at seeking out and destroying abnormal white blood cells.

The research will focus on a genetic fault found in patients with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS). MDS is a group of blood disorders where the balance of healthy blood cells in the body is disrupted by the growth of ‘master’ cells. Patients with these types of disease are usually elderly and are often unable to cope with intensive treatment like chemotherapy.

Professor Mills said: “Several genetic abnormalities have been connected with MDS but we don’t know their role in the onset or progression of the disease. In particular a gene called SF3B1 is known to be mutated in the blood cells of around a third of patients with MDS. As many as 85% of patients with a type of MDS called refractory anaemia with ring sideroblasts (RARS) have the error. The ultimate aim of our research is to improve treatment for patients with MDS, particularly RARS, by identifying a specific drug that can target this SF3B1 mutation.”

The researchers will study this particular genetic fault and use cutting-edge genetic techniques to identify exactly how the mutated SF3B1 gene influences the development of MDS. They will look at how the abnormal SF3B1 affects the ability of the cell to repair damaged DNA, how this impairment influences disease progression, and whether it’s possible to block it with drugs.

Dr Matt Kaiser, Head of Research at Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research, said: “The majority of patients diagnosed with MDS are over the age of 60 and most are unable to cope with the current treatments available. This research shed light on how a genetic error in SF3B1 affects blood cell development and behaviour. Improving treatments and tailoring them to target specific rogue cells will enable a safer and more effective way of combating the disease for patients.”

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