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£8 million awarded for pancreatic cancer research ‘dream team’

A trans-Atlantic ‘dream team’, involving scientists and clinicians from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), has been awarded £8 million to fight pancreatic cancer.

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The three year investment from Stand up to Cancer, Cancer Research UK, the American Association of Cancer Research and Lustgarten Foundation aims to accelerate the pace of research in the laboratory, with benefits for patients in the form of early phase clinical trials.

Pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, taking the lives of nearly 8,000 people per year in the UK, and over 300,000 worldwide. It has the worst five-year survival of any cancer and is projected to become the second most frequent cause of cancer death by 2030.

Tackling an urgent need for better treatments, the trans-Atlantic team of top researchers aim to answer the toughest questions in pancreatic cancer.  First, the initiative will identify new ways to turn off the faulty molecular machinery that drives pancreatic tumor growth. These ‘super-enhancers’ coordinate the expression of large numbers of genes and could be responsible for the aggressive behaviour of cancer stem cells, which form the root of the deadly disease.

Prof Christopher Heeschen, from QMUL’s Barts Cancer Institute and team leader of the ‘Stem Cells’ group, said: “Our data collectively indicate that cancer stem cells are critical drivers of pancreatic cancer and drug resistance, thus their elimination is essential to more durable treatment responses. We predict that super-enhancer networks may be a key element controlling the cancer stem cell program, and that targeting these networks will abolish their aggressiveness and thus prevent relapse.”

The team also aims to bring recent developments in cancer stem cell metabolism to the clinic. A recent QMUL study showed that pancreatic cancer stem cells are virtually addicted to oxygen-based metabolism, and could be ‘suffocated’ with a drug already used to treat diabetes. Ultimately these novel approaches could help stop pancreatic cancer returning after treatment.  

Dr David Propper from QMUL’s Barts Cancer Institute, and team leader of the ‘Clinical Trials’ group, said: “Within three years, our aim is to develop therapies that at least double typical survival times. Through meticulous attention to the effects of drugs targeting super-enhancer networks in tumours of patients in the trials we aim to significantly augment understanding of the disease and facilitate major advances in patient outcomes.”

Prof Hemant Kocher, surgeon and researcher from QMUL’s Barts Cancer Institute, said: “We’re hopeful that we can produce dramatic patient benefit in such a brief time period. First, our team brings together the very best experts, doctors as well as scientists, on both sides of the Atlantic to fight this deadly disease. Second, we will focus our efforts on the smartest possible combinations of existing drugs and new ones entering clinical development. Finally, guided by recent scientific advances, using the state-of-the-art techniques, we will use these agents to reprogram hitherto unappreciated biological machinery that drives tumor growth.”

The QMUL research group will work in collaboration with teams from the University of Cambridge, University of Pennsylvania, University of California San Diego, Princeton University and Translational Genomic Research Institute and The Salk Institute of Biological Sciences.

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