A group of scientists in Newcastle have been awarded £5 million from Cancer Research UK to extend their groundbreaking cancer research.

The funding has been awarded to three teams at the Cancer Research UK Newcastle Centre based at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research, which had its centre status renewed in December 2016 as part of a review by the charity.

This latest investment from Cancer Research UK brings their recent funding total in Newcastle to over £12 million, which includes £5.9 million as part of the centre review process and £2 million awarded to the Newcastle Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre (ECMC)*, by the charity and the National Institute for Health Research.

It will allow scientists in the centre to continue their vital research into cancer and further cements Newcastle as a hub of ground-breaking science.

Professor Josef Vormoor and Dr Olaf Heidenreich are two of the researchers who will benefit from the latest cash injection, which is a Science Committee Programme Award that provides long-term support for multidisciplinary research which aims to answer questions spanning all areas of cancer research.

Originally from Germany, Prof Vormoor joined Newcastle University 11 years ago and is now Director of the Northern Institute for Cancer Research (NICR). He also carries out research at Newcastle University, focusing on childhood acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL), a type of blood cancer that starts from white blood cells called lymphocytes.

Every year in the UK around 500 young people are diagnosed with ALL, but it is most common in children aged 0-4 years old**.

Despite the fact that treatment is often successful, there are still some children for whom treatment doesn’t work. And there are also long-term and late-stage side effects associated with treatment which can affect children later in life.

The latest funding from Cancer Research UK will enable Prof Vormoor and Dr Heidenreich to look at improving treatment options for children with ALL. They hope to uncover new drug combinations with which to treat childhood ALL – combinations that improve survival and have fewer side effects.

Professor Vormoor said: “There are children with ALL who do not respond to treatment, so we need to develop more options for them. And current treatments have side-effects that can have consequences decades later. That’s why we want and need to find new, better and kinder treatments for children diagnosed with cancer – so they can survive their cancer and do so with a good quality of life. ”

As part of their work the team will use techniques like CRISPR, which allows scientists to make precise changes to a cell’s DNA. It can help them explore the underlying biology of ALL cancer cells and figure out what these cells depend on to survive.

By exploring these vulnerabilities in the cancer cells, the team hope it could lead to the development of new treatments, including targeted drugs.

The team will also study different combinations of existing drugs to see if they work better than the treatments we already have, and if they have fewer side effects. They will use cells taken from patients which will help them get an idea of how these drug combinations – and other treatments – might work in patients.

Professor Vormoor said: “By understanding the vulnerabilities in ALL cancer cells we aim to develop and use drugs that specifically target and kill them. We hope results from this research can be used in the future as the basis for new early phase clinical trials looking at different combinations of treatments.”

Another team to benefit from this funding is one led by Professor Steve Clifford, Professor Simon Bailey and Dr Dan Williamson, who are studying medulloblastoma, the most common aggressive brain tumour in children.

Professor Clifford, who works at the Wolfson Childhood Cancer Research Centre, Newcastle University, and his team are looking at patient samples to understand the disease better. They hope to find biomarkers – or molecular ‘fingerprints’ – within tumours that could be used to figure out what kind of treatment a patient should have and how well they are likely to respond to it.

A third team set to receive funding, investigating hepatocellular carcinoma, are Professor Derek Mann, Dean of Research & Innovation at Newcastle University, Dr Helen Reeves Consultant Gastroenterologist based in the NICR and Professor Owen Sansom, Interim Director at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research in Glasgow.

Dr Helen Reeves said: “In the UK deaths from Hepatocellular carcinoma, or liver cancer, unlike other cancers, are rising markedly. The treatments we have right now don’t work very well, partly because the amount of drug needed to kill cancer cells damage the liver and cause liver failure.”

This team will study the role of a specific type of immune cell called neutrophils in the development of hepatocellular carcinoma, including looking at what type of neutrophils (‘good’ or ‘bad’) are present in tumours at different stages of the disease. They also want to see if blocking neutrophils from entering the tumour can stop the cancer growing. The team hope their findings could later be used to develop targeted, safer drugs that help a persons’ own immune system fight their cancer, without damaging their liver.

Dr Heidenreich said: “It’s a great honour to have been awarded this funding from Cancer Research UK. Newcastle is a great place for cancer research as there’s the complete pipeline here – from basic science right through to drug discovery and clinical trials.”

Professor Vormoor added: “We have been able to establish strong research teams in Newcastle and we have some of the best childhood cancer research teams in Europe. The experience of the researchers and medical staff we work with is also vital to our work.

“The clinical and academic infrastructure in Newcastle is key to our success, and funding such as this latest investment from Cancer Research UK enables this work to continue and drives our ideas forward. Without funding like this we couldn’t make advances and develop new treatments.”

Dr Gemma Balmer, Cancer Research UK’s Senior Research Funding Manager, said: “These three programmes demonstrate the diversity of research that happens in Newcastle. It’s great to see important research into children’s cancer receiving this funding and the research into liver cancer is also an exciting area that has the potential to help us uncover new insights into the role of neutrophils in the disease.”

Lisa Millett, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for the North East, said: “This award is recognition of the fantastic research taking place in Newcastle. One in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some stage in our lives, but the good news is more people are surviving the disease now than ever before. Cancer survival in the UK has doubled since the early 1970s and Cancer Research UK’s work has been at the heart of that progress.”

For more information, visit www.cancerresearchuk.org