Prostate cancer cell (credit LRI EM unit)
A prostate cancer cell © LRI EM Unit

Five UK and US universities are teaming up in a £55m research project to develop new technologies and strategies for detecting cancer at its earliest stage, when the chance of successful treatment is greatest.

The charity Cancer Research UK will invest £40m in the Alliance for Cancer Early Detection over five years, with a further £15m ($20m) contributed by the US partners, Stanford University and Oregon Health & Science University. UK participants are Manchester and Cambridge universities and University College London.

Michelle Mitchell, CRUK chief executive, said the push to identify the disease in its infancy has “the potential to completely change the future of cancer treatment, turning it into a manageable and beatable disease for more people.”

She said the project brought together some of the world leading research centres in the area of early detection.

The chances of patients suffering from common cancers surviving for five years or more is more than three times higher if the disease is diagnosed at stage one, when the tumour is small and localised, than at stage four, when it has started to invade surrounding tissue and other organs.

Diagnosing lung cancer at its earliest stage increases the chance of surviving the disease for five years or more to 57 per cent, from only 3 per cent when it is diagnosed at the most advanced stage.

Screening programmes have increased early detection and successful treatment for some cancers such as bowel, breast and cervical. The new alliance will work to improve the accuracy of existing tests, while tackling the psychological and practical factors that stop many people who are eligible for screening from taking part.

However more research will be directed at the many cancer types for which no screening tools exist and early detection technologies have yet to be developed.

Mark Emberton, oncology professor at UCL, said the alliance aims to “integrate two scientific revolutions: in genetics and imaging,” he added that it was “now possible to see cancers [inside the body] that are just 3mm across.”

His lab is detecting tiny tumours with “photoacoustic imaging”, based on the sound made when a laser shines on living tissues, and “hyperpolarised MRI”, which measures their distinctive metabolic activity.

The plan is to combine the new imaging technology with genetic information from blood and urine tests. “We desperately need to be able to detect cancer at a point when the disease can be cured without creating needless anxiety for patients or a burden to the health system,” Prof Emberton said.

A priority will be to ensure that new technology does not lead to over-diagnosis and excessive treatment, added Rebecca Fitzgerald, professor of cancer prevention at Cambridge. When very early signs of cancer are detected, doctors will need to know whether it should be removed quickly or — as with some “indolent” tumours — left to see whether it remains harmless over time.

The alliance raises the long-term prospect of “precision prevention” where cancer could be stopped before it occurs in the first place. This would involve screening individuals for genetic susceptibility and for environmental factors that might cause cancer. They would then be given advice to minimise the risk of disease and tested from time to time to detect any signs of cancer starting.

“If any cells started to go wrong, you could be given drugs to nip the problem in the bud,” said David Crosby, head of early detection research at CRUK.

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