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New grants for pancreatic cancer research

Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) has received new grants from Pancreatic Cancer UK (PCUK) to fund five projects that aim to improve treatment options for pancreatic cancer patients.

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Pancreatic cancer is the fifth most common cause of cancer deaths but receives only 1.4 per cent of the total cancer research spend in the UK.

The grants come from two separate schemes run by the charity, with some funds totalling almost £300,000 for researchers at QMUL’s Barts Cancer Institute.

In PCUK's third annual Research Innovation Fund (RIF) grants scheme, Dr Alexandra Aicher, Dr Angus Cameron, Dr Gunnel Halldén and Professor Christopher Heeschen have received awards. Dr Stéphanie Kermorgant together with Professor Heeschen have also received a grant from the Future Leaders Fund.

The RIF aims to support creative ideas and approaches in pancreatic cancer research, including those that might have shown success in other areas of cancer research but also show promise for pancreatic cancer.

These four new projects will investigate a range of innovative approaches to tackling pancreatic cancer, including:

  • research into ‘oncolytic viruses’, with potential to destroy pancreatic cancer cells using a modified flu virus;
  • understanding the roles that pancreatic cancer stem cells play in tumour development;
  • new immunotherapies in which the body’s own immune system is used to fight tumourigenic cells;
  • developing new drugs that could prevent the spread and growth of cancer cells.

Professor Heeschen from QMUL’s Barts Cancer Institute said: “In most patients with pancreatic cancer, tumours can no longer be removed by surgery at the time of diagnosis and thus no tissue is available for biological studies. Recently we have succeeded in isolating cancer stem cells, the most aggressive cancer cells, from the circulating blood.

“This funding will help us to establish clinical procedures to reproducibly isolate and expand these cells from any patients, which will then be used for developing more effective therapies.

Dr Gunnel Halldén from QMUL’s Barts Cancer Institute added: "By combining our expertise we hope to develop novel therapeutics that enables monitoring of tumour regression during treatment to take into account the specific properties of each tumour in patients and greatly improve on survival and quality of life.

“The team is looking forward to working on this project that we hope will bring a better understanding of how to overcome treatment resistance and improve on outcomes for patients suffering from pancreatic cancer.”

The Future Leaders Fund was designed to support young research talent, both clinical and non-clinical, and encourage persistence in the field.

This award funds a new PhD project for Alejandro Noval in Dr Kermorgant's lab, who will investigate two processes that play a part in the growth of pancreatic cancer cells: autophagy (essentially "cell cannibalism") and signalling inside cells via a surface protein called c-Met.

Alejandro aims to understand more about how these cell processes interact in cancer. With this knowledge, the research team could then start work on finding new drugs that interfere with the processes, potentially leading to promising new pancreatic cancer treatments.

Alex Ford, CEO of Pancreatic Cancer UK, said: “We have a responsibility to tackle the huge issue of under-funding into pancreatic cancer research as well as encourage the exploration of cutting edge ideas... Funding innovative research is essential if we are to see an increase in survival rates for this deadly disease.

“That’s why we are delighted to be announcing these research awards in London as part of the latest round of grants awarded under our Research Innovation Fund. We are confident that the projects we have chosen to fund have the potential to truly change the lives of people with pancreatic cancer in the future.”

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