Cancer Research UK and its commercial arm Cancer Research Technology (CRT), have established a team of scientists with expertise in cancer stem cell research to identify new targets to detect, monitor and treat cancer.
The charity has hand-picked four world class research groups to collaborate on an initial two-year research project to unravel the role of cancer stem cells in the development, growth and spread of tumours in breast, prostate and head and neck cancers. The research groups* are led by: Professor Fiona Watt, Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute; Dr Robert Clarke, The University of Manchester and Paterson Institute for Cancer Research; Professor Norman Maitland, University of York and Professor Alan Clarke Cardiff University.
It was previously thought that all the cells within a tumour are the same, but it is now known a small number of slow-growing cells do not respond to standard treatments. These ‘cancer stem cells’ are thought to be a cause of resistance to common therapies and the spread of tumour cells to other parts of the body.
Scientists do not yet know how cancer stem cells can be identified and killed. The Cancer Stem Cell Consortium will develop tests and models to refine a common set of known proteins – or biomarkers - present on cancer stem cells across three different tumour types for future drug discovery programmes. The team will also identify new biomarkers as potential targets for the development of new cancer drugs.
Professor Fiona Watt, deputy director of Cancer Research UK’s Cambridge Research Institute and leader of the consortium, said: “Conventional treatments - which do not target cancer stem cells - may shrink a tumour initially but they don’t prevent regrowth or spread of the tumour.
“At the moment there is limited information on the ways scientists could target cancer stem cells. But I hope that knowledge generated by our team of experts will help in the development of potential new therapies to treat difficult to beat cancers.”
Initially the project will receive £500,000 from Cancer Research UK for two years. It is hoped each research team will attract an industry partner to bring in additional skills know-how and more funding for longer term research. In return industry partners will benefit through access to the consortium’s latest discoveries and intellectual property and share Cancer Research UK’s expertise in translating scientific discoveries into new cancer treatments.
Once the early development phase is complete, the industrial partner can choose to develop any joint discoveries into compounds with potential to be taken into early clinical trials.
Dr Phil L’Huillier, Cancer Research Technology’s business development director, said: “We’ve selected the world’s leading experts in cancer stem cell research to push the frontiers of knowledge in this important field.
“Targeting cancer stem cells is an important strategy in the fight against cancer. By bringing together industry partners and using our commercial expertise alongside the critical mass of the best brains in science we hope to identify important new leads for the development of new therapies to increase survival from a range of cancers.”
Any profits from the success of the projects will be shared between the charity and the research partners involved, with Cancer Research UK re-investing any proceeds in its future research work. The business relationships will be managed by CRT, which has more than 20 years experience in licensing patents and developing opportunities for new cancer drugs and diagnostics, working closely with licensees and the pharmaceutical industry.
This is the second of CRT’s consortia, the first called Senectus Therapeutics Ltd** formed in 2008 to further research into the triggers of cellular senescence – cell aging - a process by which cells irreversibly halt their cell cycle of growth and division.
Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Cancer stem cells represent an exciting new frontier in our efforts to beat cancer. We urgently need to find new and effective ways to target these cells. This early research will pave the way for our scientists to develop more treatments and help more people survive a diagnosis of cancer – especially people who have aggressive cancers or for whom conventional treatments do not prevent the cancer returning.
“We’re investing in this exciting collaboration made up of world-leading scientists to combine our research expertise with support from industry partners to crack the codes behind the causes and development of cancer.”