Experts Jointly Hunt For Cancer Clues

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture
Experts Jointly Hunt For Cancer Clues

A 2.7m pound research centre will search out the earliest signs of cancer – in the hope of giving patients the best possible chance of beating the disease.

Funded by the charity Yorkshire Cancer Research, the YCR Centre for Pre-Cancer Genomics at the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine brings together the expertise of surgeons physicians, pathologists, molecular biologists and computational scientists from the University of Leeds and St James’s University Hospital.

The centre will provide seven new scientific posts, and its research will initially focus on lung cancer. The team will seek to identify genetic abnormalities which could show that a patient is in the earliest phases of developing the disease – long before there is any clear evidence of a tumour developing. The hope is that, in the same way that women are screened for the earliest signs of cervical cancer, a similar test could be developed for lung cancer – enabling doctors to give the patient the best chance of survival, by starting treatment before the disease becomes invasive and has the chance to spread.

The research will be led jointly by Professor Terry Rabbitts, director of the Leeds Institute of Molecular Medicine and Pamela Rabbitts, Professor of Experimental Respiratory Research.

Researchers will look back through the pathology archives in the search for cancer’s tell-tale signs. Taking advantage of the wealth of clinical material stored in the archives of Leeds Teaching Hospitals, they will start by focussing on the pre-malignant lesions that precede the development of lung and oral cancers. “By looking at old stored material from patients who subsequently went on to develop cancer, we can search for the earliest signs of genetic abnormalities which may have led on to the disease,” Prof Pamela Rabbitts explained.

At the same time, the team will work with current patients regularly attending clinics with chest physicians at St James University Hospital and maxillofacial surgeons at Leeds General Infirmary. Samples will be taken from patients who are undergoing repeated surveillance after being assessed as being at high risk for development of these cancers and these samples too will be analysed for genetic abnormalities. Some of these patients may eventually develop cancer – and by collecting samples from this group, the researchers will be able to compare the molecular characteristics at the “pre-malignant” and malignant phases of the disease.


The research will target the very earliest stage in cancer development when the number of genetic changes is much fewer than in fully malignant cancers, directing attention to those clinically-significant mutations that initiate and drive tumour development. Said Prof Rabbitts: “It’s about how you work out which of these changes really matter. What is a driver of cancer development and what is just a passenger.”

The work will take the research through from obtaining the samples, the quality control of those samples to the molecular analysis, the statistical analysis – and finally the results. The long-term aim is to identify reliable disease markers for early cancer, and also to use the information in the design of new treatments.

“The samples we obtain from patients are very small, stretching current methods of analysis to their limits,” explained Professor Pamela Rabbitts. “But the technology for genome analysis is developing rapidly making possible what was once unthinkable. We are grateful to YCR for recognising the opportunity provided by the focus of LIMM in translational science and its close relationship with St James’s Hospital.”

Professor Terry Rabbitts added: “This programme exemplifies the bench-to-bedside and bedside-to-bench approach which is central to the strategy of LIMM.”

Professor Ray Cartwright, YCR Chairman of the Scientific Advisory Committee said: “Yorkshire Cancer Research is very pleased to be able to fund this groundbreaking research. Although it is a very challenging study, if successful it could lead to a greater understanding of the early changes which lead to cancer and so to new ways of detecting and treating the disease.

“This work forms part of the research portfolio of the YCR, which now funds a wide range of investigations from these early detection studies, to new and more effective therapies and other interventions for cancer patients."

Dr Hugo Mascie-Taylor, Medical Director of the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “The Trust is a leading international centre for treating cancer and has a strong commitment to research. The clinical material we possess is a tremendously valuable asset for scientists and we hope it will prove useful in unlocking understanding of the early signs of cancer.”