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Cambridge teams land £4m to tackle toughest cancers

Two teams of Cambridge scientists – which include experts based at Addenbrooke’s Hospital - are to get a £4m boost to help with the fight against cancer.

It comes thanks to Cancer Grand Challenges, an initiative co-founded by Cancer Research UK and the USA’s National Cancer Institute, to encourage the world’s leading cancer researchers to take on some of the toughest challenges.

The cash will help the eDyNAmiC1 (extrachromosomal DNA in Cancer) team investigate new ways to combat treatment resistant cancers.

The goal is to understand how extrachromosomal DNA is created, find its vulnerabilities, and develop new ways to target it in some of the hardest cancers to treat, including glioblastoma, lung and oesophageal.

Professor Serena Nik-Zainal . Picture by Chris Radburn
Professor Serena Nik-Zainal. Picture by Chris Radburn.

Among those on the team are co-investigator Professor Serena Nik-Zainal, who has been an honorary consultant in clinical genetics at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust since February 2013. She is also part of the University of Cambridge’s Department of Medical Genetics, Early Cancer Institute and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Cambridge Centre. She said: "

We are so excited to be part of this collaboration studying this phenomenon of extra pieces of DNA called ecDNA. What a privilege it is to be entrusted to explore how ecDNAs cause cancer and drive them to be aggressive. We hope that what we learn will bring real benefits to cancer patients in due course

Professor Serena Nik-Zainal
Dr Giulia Biffi, Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly and Dr Tony Coll are part of the CANCAN the pics ‘Chris Radburn’
Dr Tony Coll (right) with fellow CANCAN team members Dr Giulia Biffi of the CRUK Cambridge Institute (left), and Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly (centre) from the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science. Picture by Chris Radburn

The CANCAN (CANcer Cachexia Action Network) team hopes to prevent cachexia, a condition where patients ‘waste away’ in the later stages of their disease. One of the co-investigators is Dr Tony Coll, of the Wolfson Diabetes and Endocrine Clinic (WDEC) at Addenbrooke’s and Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science.

Cachexia is characterised by poor appetite and extensive weight loss from both skeletal muscle and fatty tissue and is still not fully understood. It is hoped further research will help develop new treatments to improve quality of life for patients and set the standard for cachexia management around the world.

The American-led eDyNAmiC and CANCAN teams are among four winning teams announced in the latest round of Cancer Grand challenges – a ground-breaking £425m cancer research initiative co-founded in 2020 by Cancer Research UK and the National Cancer Institute in the US.

  • A study related to CANCAN has been opened at Addenbrooke’s by Dr Coll and Dr Claire Connell, a clinical lecturer in medical oncology at the University of Cambridge and member of the CRUK Cambridge Centre Pancreatic Cancer Programme.

Called the Metabolic and Immunological Phenotyping in Patients with Cancer (MIPPaC) study, it aims to understand the mechanisms underlying weight loss in cancer patients by investigating changes to metabolism and the immune system. It will guide future research and help to design treatments that can alleviate or prevent weight loss.