Over the past year, our researchers have made significant advances in the cancer research field.

In 2018, scientists at the Institute published nearly 200 journal articles, received 20 awards, and over 130 cancer researchers took part in events engaging the public with the important research happening across Cambridge.

To celebrate the end of another successful year at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, we’ve collected the top science stories and awards of 2018.

Our year in numbers

Top five scientific discoveries of 2018

1. Possible link between breast cancer and asparagine

7 February 2018

Photo credit: LRI EM

In February this year, researchers in our Hannon Group discovered that an amino acid called asparagine is essential for breast cancer spread, and by restricting it, cancer cells stopped invading other parts of the body in mice.

Most breast cancer patients do not die from their primary tumour, but from the spread of cancer to the lungs, brain, bones, or other organs. Finding ways to stop this spread from happening is fundamental to increasing survival.

The team found that blocking the production of asparagine with a drug called L-asparaginase in mice, and putting them on a low-asparagine diet, greatly reduced the breast cancer’s ability to spread. Examining data from breast cancer patients indicated that the greater the ability of breast cancer cells to make asparagine, the more likely the disease is to spread.

This finding adds vital information to our understanding of how we can stop cancer spreading – the main reason patients die from their disease. In the future, restricting this amino acid through a controlled diet plan or by other means could be an additional part of treatment for some patients with breast and other cancers.

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2. Antifungal drug eliminates sleeping bowel cancer cells in mice

31 May 2018

An antifungal medication, commonly prescribed for toenail infections, could help eliminate dormant cells within bowel tumours according to research published by Dr Simon Buczacki, Winton Group, in May.

The Cambridge team characterised the molecular nature of dormant bowel cancer cells. These dormant cancer cells are resistant to standard drugs, including chemotherapy, which work by targeting cells that are actively growing.

The scientists identified two key pathways involved in cell dormancy and used miniature bowel tumours grown from the cells of mice with cancer, to test different drugs targeting these pathways.

They found, for the first time, that itraconazole blocked signals from a pathway called Wnt, which is implicated in the growth and spread of many different cancers. This led to the tumours collapsing in the mice – dormant cells disappeared and the tumour stopped growing.

The next stage will be to test this drug in people. The researchers hope to set up a clinical trial where they can test its effect on patients with hard to treat advanced bowel cancer.

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3. Finding meaningful patterns in complexity of ovarian cancer

13 August 2018

In August, the Brenton Group discovered that distinct patterns of genetic mutation in ovarian cancer are linked to patient outcomes.

Early symptoms of high grade serous ovarian cancer, the most common type of ovarian cancer, can be difficult to pick up. By the time the cancer is diagnosed, it is often at an advanced stage, and survival rates have not changed much over the last 20 years.

In this study of ovarian cancer samples from over 500 women, the team harnessed big data processing techniques to look for broad patterns in the genetic readouts from ovarian cancer cells. Designing powerful computer algorithms to scan the genetic data, the group found seven distinct patterns with each pattern representing a different mechanism of DNA mutation.

The signatures were also linked to how well the patients responded to different treatments and whether they were likely to become resistant to chemotherapy. The researchers are now planning a clinical trial on ovarian cancer patients to see whether the seven signatures help doctors choose the best treatment for patients.

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4. Study shows potential to develop brain tumour liquid biopsies

6 November 2018

Scientists are making strides in developing liquid biopsies for brain tumours by detecting tumour DNA in the fluid from around the brain and spine. Liquid biopsies would provide a less intrusive test, which could be hugely beneficial for brain tumours where collecting samples can be difficult and risky for patients.

Researchers in our Rosenfeld Group analysed cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) – which bathes the brain and spinal cord – in 13 patients with a type of brain tumour called a glioma – detecting tumour DNA in five (39%) of the patients.

For the first time, the researchers identified tumour DNA in the CSF by looking at the size of the DNA fragments, which are shorter than those from healthy cells. This provides another way to detect brain tumour DNA, potentially increasing the detection rate.

This study lays important groundwork that brings the possibility of liquid biopsies for this hard to treat disease one step closer.

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5. New insights into ER+ breast cancer

10 December 2018

Researchers at the Institute have discovered that estrogen-dependent gene expression in breast tumour cells is not cyclical, as previous studies have suggested.

Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer, and in 70% of cases tumour growth is driven by the hormone estrogen. This form of breast cancer is called estrogen receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer.

Using a cutting edge genome sequencing technique, Dr Andrew Holding from the Markowetz Group found that, unlike previously reported studies, the expression of genes in response to estrogen was found to be highly variable, with estrogen receptor binding sustained, which may make the cells even more responsive to estrogen.

These findings help resolve previous contradictory reports about the effects of estrogen and so create a more solid foundation for future research into ER+ breast cancer.

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Research Awards

Dr Sarah Bohndiek

Dr Bohndiek received the prestigious Future Leaders in Cancer Research Prize for her work developing new imaging tools to study the evolution of cancer.

Prof Sir Shankar Balasubramanian

Prof Sir Shankar Balasubramanian was awarded the Royal Medal by the Royal Society in recognition of his groundbreaking work on DNA sequencing techniques.

Prof Greg Hannon

Institute Director Prof Greg Hannon was elected to membership of the European Molecular Biology Organisation as well as being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2018.

Prof Simon Tavaré

Prof Tavaré was elected Foreign Associate of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in recognition of their distinguished and continuing achievements in original research.