20 Nov 2013
In - Research

Every year in November, there’s only one place to be if you want to find out about the latest in cancer research. A huge range of health professionals, scientists, researchers, and statisticians can be found at the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference, talking about the latest discoveries, from lab bench to bedside.

We were there to report back on findings from the front line of prostate cancer research. 

And our team spent a busy four days searching out the best and most relevant talks to tell you about. Here’s our pick of the bunch.

Getting a step closer to better diagnostic tests

First up was some news on advances in diagnosing prostate cancer. New research from Queen Mary University London, part-funded by Cancer Research UK and presented at the conference, may take us a step closer to overcoming one of the biggest problems in prostate cancer treatment – telling slow-growing tumours from aggressive ones.

Researchers gave an update on the Prolaris test. It measures the levels of activity of genes that drive cell division, known as cell cycle genes. This gives a measure of how active the cells are, which is used to generate a cell cycle progression (CCP) score. It’s not a finished product yet but the researchers are in the process of working out how best to use the test to help patients.

Bringing genetic-testing into the clinic

There’s a lot of work underway all around the world at the moment to try to understand the genetics behind cancer – that is, what genes make you more likely to develop cancer if they’re faulty or become faulty? 

It’s much quicker and cheaper to read a persons DNA (called sequencing) now than it was a few years ago, so it’s possible to test for mutations in lots of genes at the same time. Dr Nanzeen Rahman and Dr Clare Turnbull at the Institute of Cancer Research presented some of the results from their exciting Mainstreaming Cancer Genetics (MCG) programme, which aims to combine all the right technology, analysis methods, people and procedures needed for genetic testing to become a routine part of patient care. 

Eventually they hope that all cancer patients will be tested for mutations in known ‘risk’ genes.  This will help doctors choose the best treatment for the patient and also to decide whether they should offer to test close relatives to determine their cancer risk.  At the moment, this project is being tested on 97 genes in ovarian and breast cancer patients at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. If it goes well, we can eventually expect it to be rolled out across other cancers and throughout the UK.

Using nanotechnology to treat prostate cancer

We really enjoyed this session about new developments in nanotechnology to treat cancer. Nanotechnology uses very small molecules as building blocks to create tiny ‘devices’. In this case, Dr Omid Farokhzad, from Harvard Medical School in the USA described his team’s research into new ways to deliver drugs so that only cancer cells get zapped, while normal cells stay unharmed, so reducing side effects.

To do this, they wrap the drug in an extremely small ‘carrier’ called a nanoparticle, which is made of ‘controlled-release’ polymers. This means that the carrier remains intact for a while before breaking down and releasing the drug - so it can circulate in the bloodstream without damaging healthy tissue on its way to the tumour. By adding molecules into the carrier surface that bind to other specific molecules on the surface of cancer cells, the scientists can direct the nanoparticles to the cancer cells, where they are small enough to be sucked inside the cell, so that when the polymer containing the drug breaks down, the cancer cells are destroyed. 

The scientists have been trialling this system in Phase II clinical trials to treat advanced prostate cancer. They’re using docetaxel – a chemotherapy drug that’s often used to manage advanced prostate cancer – and are wrapping it in a carrier with molecules on the surface that bind to PMSA, a protein that’s found on the surface of prostate cancer cells, but not normal prostate cells. 

Advances in imaging technology

Professor Sarah Nelson from the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Imaging at the University of San Francisco highlighted her research into a new imaging technology that she hopes will eventually be able to identify the aggressiveness of prostate tumours.

This technology, called hyperpolarised MRI, involves injecting a compound called pyruvate (a naturally occurring molecule) into the body and then using MRI to monitor its breakdown into lactate. This is a normal chemical reaction that’s thought to happen faster in cancer cells than normal cells. So by measuring the amount of lactate produced, it might be possible to distinguish between early and late stage tumours.

Professor Nelson and her team have already shown that this technology is safe to use, and they’re now investigating whether this technology could be used to tell the difference between aggressive and non-aggressive prostate cancers – a holy grail for prostate cancer research - and to monitor patients’ response to therapies.

Our research in action – the ‘Get back on track’ service.

The conference was also a really important chance for us to share the real-world success of the fatigue intervention service we researched, developed and trialled with King’s College London. It’s now a full-time service, called 'Get back on track' helping men cope with fatigue during and after treatment. Hopefully, by demonstrating that we’ve come up with a way to bring high quality, robust research into a ‘real-life’ action, we’ll lead the way for other groups to do the same. 

Find out more about the research we fund.

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