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'Sandpit’ workshop in Mexico results in research project to prove the diagnostic potential of saliva for breast cancer

15% of women worldwide suffer from breast cancer, with over 55,000 and 1.6 million cases diagnosed in the UK and Mexico per annum respectively, and existing diagnostic standards are invasive, costly and painful. But an intensive ‘sandpit’ joint multidisciplinary research workshop between Queen Mary University of London, the University of the Americas Puebla and the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico has resulted in funding for a collaborative research project which aims to take the first steps towards diagnosis of the disease using saliva.

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A doctor studies mammograms on a tablet computer
A doctor studies mammograms on a tablet computer

The intensive workshop between Queen Mary, the Instituto Politécnico Nacional (IPN) and Universidad de las Americas Puebla (UDLAP) took place at UDLAP in San Andrés Cholula, near Puebla, where 15 academics from the three institutions came together to share ideas and exchange knowledge to explore concepts and create potential quality research projects of international standing. The intensive work of the sandpit was moderated by Aurelija Povilaike, Faculty Research Manager at Queen Mary. 

The event proved a great success and the winning research project, "Development of a novel saliva-based method to detect breast cancer biomarkers", will now be awarded seed funding.

Multidisciplinary approach combines metabolomics with long-read DNA sequencing

The winning project, proposed by Dr. José Correa Basurto of IPN, Dr. Mireya Paredes López of UDLAP, Dr. Lenin Domínguez-Ramírez of UDLAP and Dr. Chema Martin of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary, aims to provide proof of concept of the diagnostic potential of saliva for breast cancer using a multidisciplinary approach. This will combine IPN’s work towards identifying a metabolic signature of breast cancer using mass-spectrometry metabolomics with work by Queen Mary to identify six genetic biomarkers of the disease in the Mexican and UK populations using long-read DNA sequencing of circulating free DNA (cfDNA).

Queen Mary won a £300,000 bid to the Natural Environment Research Council led by Professor Stephen Rossiter, Chema Martin and Professor Richard Nichols to establish a cutting-edge facility for long-read sequencing in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences (SBCS) in 2019. The successful bid was match-funded by Queen Mary’s Strategic Infrastructure Fund, allowing the university to develop the most advanced long-read sequencing facility at any research department in London universities.

Dr. Chema Martin, Senior Lecturer in Organismal Biology at Queen Mary, said “This sandpit was a unique learning experience that allowed us to meet leading researchers in Mexico, challenge ourselves to find common grounds and develop projects that address major societal needs. The project I developed with my colleagues at the IPN and UDLAP is an exciting opportunity to explore the potential of long-read sequencing in cancer diagnosis and I’m convinced it will help to open close research interactions between Queen Mary and our Mexican partners”.

Building relationships

Workshop participants at UDLAP including Dr. Chema Martin and Prof. Teresa Alonso-Rasgado
Workshop participants at UDLAP including Dr. Chema Martin and Prof. Teresa Alonso-Rasgado

While the sandpit was taking place Professor Teresa Alonso-Rasgado, Dean for International in the Faculty of Science and Engineering, and Sharon Ellis, Director of Research and Business Development, took the opportunity to visit Mexican universities including the Autonomous University of Nuevo Leon in Monterrey (UNAL) and the University of Sonora (UNISON) to talk to researchers about the work of Queen Mary. In addition they held meetings to secure attendees for the Empowering women in STEM event, planned to take place in Mexico City in 2020.

Ground-breaking cancer research

Queen Mary researchers develop novel detection practices, reducing invasive procedures

The winning project is part of the cutting-edge cancer research and development taking place at Queen Mary University of London. Queen Mary's best and brightest have used their research to drive improvements in cancer screening and testing, taking strides towards the development of new treatments.

Our researchers have been working to develop new, non-invasive tests that can make it simpler and easier to detect early-stage cancers, including:

UK urine test that can detect early-stage pancreatic cancer starts clinical study

A urine test that can detect early stage pancreatic cancer has reached the final stage of validation before being developed for use with patients.

New blood test for prostate cancer is highly-accurate and avoids invasive biopsies

A new and simple blood test has been found to efficiently and accurately detect the presence of aggressive prostate cancer.

Cervical pre-cancer can be detected in self-collected urine or vaginal samples

Queen Mary researchers have developed a non-invasive test to detect cervical pre-cancer by analysing urine and vaginal samples women collect themselves.