Cambridge scientists are set to benefit from a major cash injection from Cancer Research UK and partners to develop radical new strategies and technologies to detect cancer at its earliest stage.

Early detection is an area of research that hasn’t been given the attention it deserves. This alliance will allow the field to gain momentum, so the sum of its members will be greater than its parts.

Rebecca Fitzgerald

The University of Cambridge will be a partner in a new transatlantic research alliance announced today to help more people beat cancer through early detection.

Cancer Research UK will invest up to £40 million over the next five years into the International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED).

ACED is a partnership between Cancer Research UK, Canary Center at Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, UCL and The University of Manchester. Stanford and the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute will also significantly invest in the Alliance, taking the total potential contributions to more than £55 million.

Early detection is essential to help more people beat cancer – a patient’s chance of surviving their disease improves dramatically when cancer is found and treated earlier.

Understanding the biology of early cancers and pre-cancerous states will allow doctors to find accurate ways to spot the disease earlier and where necessary treat it effectively. It could even enable ‘precision prevention’ – where the disease could be stopped from ever occurring in the first place.

UK statistics highlight the major improvements in survival that could be achieved. 5-year survival for six different types of cancer is more than three times higher if the disease is diagnosed at stage one, when the tumour tends to be small and remains localised, compared with survival when diagnosed at stage four, when the cancer tends to be larger and has started to invade surrounding tissue and other organs.*

Advances in early detection technologies will help decrease late-stage diagnosis and increase the proportion of people diagnosed at an early and treatable stage, so a future for more patients can be secured.

Great strides have been made through existing screening programmes, such as for bowel, breast and cervical cancer, and increasing public awareness and GP urgent referral of patients with suspicious symptoms. However, for many cancer types, no screening tools exist and new technologies for detecting cancer have been slow to emerge. 

Previously, researchers taking on this challenge have faced many barriers, including lack of funding and collaboration opportunities, meaning research has been small scale and disconnected. Individual research groups have chipped away at big challenges with limited success. By combining the ‘firepower’ of some of the leading research institutions in the world in early detection, ACED will accelerate breakthroughs, leading to quicker benefits for patients.

However, like looking for a needle in a haystack the very low levels of tell-tale early cancer signs make it incredibly difficult to detect cancer early. Scientists in the Alliance will work together at the forefront of technological innovation to translate research into realistic ways to improve cancer diagnosis, which can be implemented into health systems. Potential areas of research include:

  • Developing new improved imaging techniques and robotics, to detect early tumours and pre-cancerous lesions
  • Increasing understanding of how the environment surrounding a tumour influences cancer development
  • Developing less invasive and simpler detection techniques such as blood, breath and urine tests, which can monitor patients who are at a higher risk of certain cancers
  • Searching for early stress signals sent out from tumours or surrounding damaged tissue as a new indication of cancer
  • Looking for early signs of cancer in surrounding tissue and fluids to help diagnose hard to reach tumours
  • Harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence and big data to look for signs of cancer that are undetectable to humans.

The Cambridge ACED centre is led by clinician-scientist Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald and physicist Dr Sarah Bohndiek who also lead the CRUK Cambridge Centre’s Early Detection Programme.

In Cambridge, scientists will design, develop and deliver a clinical facility that will enable early phase clinical trials of new diagnostic technologies.

Called Clinical Infrastructure for Research in Early Detection (CuRED), this facility will be key to test and validate early diagnostics and accelerate adoption of the most promising early detection approaches by doctors.

Ongoing research in Cambridge includes the development of sophisticated imaging tools to detect pre-cancerous lesions.

"Early detection is an area of research that hasn’t been given the attention it deserves," said Professor Fitzgerald. "This alliance will allow the field to gain momentum, so the sum of its members will be greater than its parts.

“In Cambridge we will work on essential clinical trials that will result in faster implementation of new early detection strategies and diagnostics, making a real difference to the lives of patients.”

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Now is the time to be ambitious and develop effective new ways to detect cancer earlier. It’s an area of research where we have the potential to completely change the future of cancer treatment, turning it into a manageable and beatable disease for more people.

“Real progress in early detection can’t be achieved by a single organisation. Benefits for patients will only be realised if early cancer detection leaders from around the world come together. No more siloes, no more missed opportunities; let us tackle this problem together and beat cancer.”

The Prime Minister said: “Every two minutes, someone in the UK has their world turned upside down when they are diagnosed with cancer. Thanks to the pioneering work of UK researchers and our world-beating NHS, more people are surviving than ever.

“However, there is more to do to detect and cure this disease earlier. That is why I am pleased to welcome this new UK-US alliance, driven by Cancer Research UK.

“This is the transatlantic partnership at its very best. Our brilliant scientists will be able to work together to develop detection technologies and implement them in our health service, so we can find cancer earlier and ultimately save people’s lives.”

It’s crucial that new early detection advances can also be quickly implemented into the health service to save and transform lives. The Alliance will be a globally unique platform that is able to test and validate early detection innovations in real-world hospital and healthcare settings. The partners will engage with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the research field to ensure discoveries can achieve economies of scale and reach patients as soon as possible.

The Alliance will also be in a unique position to train and develop a new generation of early cancer detection research leaders, learning from the very best that both countries and all five centres have to offer.

The benefits of investing in early detection research are clear. And through ACED the global early detection research community will grow and develop technological innovations that radically improve outcomes for people diagnosed with cancer. 

* Based on 5-year age-standardised net cancer survival in England of adults diagnosed between 2013 and 2017, followed up to 2018; cancer sites for persons: colorectal, kidney, lung. For women specifically: breast, uterine and ovary.

Adapted from CRUK press release.


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