British and US scientists in £55m bid to detect cancers before tumours even appear4 min read

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Cancer could be screened out before it starts under ambitious plans to be announced today.

A ground-breaking tie-up between leading researchers in Britain and the US aims to detect the disease before it even appears in the body – saving millions of lives.

The programme, which has attracted an initial £55million funding pot and the support of the Prime Minister, aims to unpick problems in current screening programmes, develop tests for new cancers and, eventually, detect pre-cancerous cells before tumours appear.

Scientists in Manchester are investigating how to take cells out of a person at high risk of developing cancer and reproduce them to test under which conditions they are most likely to turn cancerous, or which genes increase the risk [File photo]

Scientists in Manchester are investigating how to take cells out of a person at high risk of developing cancer and reproduce them to test under which conditions they are most likely to turn cancerous, or which genes increase the risk [File photo]

Boris Johnson said: ‘Our brilliant scientists will be able to work together to develop detection technologies and implement them in our health service, so we can find cancer earlier and ultimately save people’s lives.

‘This is the transatlantic partnership at its very best.’ Cancer Research UK is leading the pro-ject, called the International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection.

It involves scientists at three British universities – Cambridge, Manchester and University College London – and two in the US, Stanford in California and Oregon Health and Science University.

Better treatments have radically improved cancer survival in recent years.

But if cancer is detected after it has already spread around the body there is little doctors can do. Late diagnosis is all too common, especially in hard to detect cancers, such as those of the pancreas and ovaries.

Screening programmes, which test the whole population at a certain age, are available only for breast, cervical and bowel cancer.

Other cancers often get diagnosed after symptoms appear, dramatically reducing survival chances.

Initially researchers will aim to improve the current screening programmes, by increasing uptake and making them as targeted and non-invasive as possible.

They will also develop screening tools for the many cancers where none exist – such as lung and prostate cancer.

Trials are already under way in Manchester on CT scans for lung cancer, while UCL are about to test MRI scans for prostate cancer.

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Other scientists are working on screening for a number of cancers in a single test – using breathalysers, DNA swabs and blood samples.

Dr David Crosby, Cancer Research UK’s head of early detection research, said: ‘These technologies and the ability to detect cancer early will induce a sea-change in our health systems, shifting it from expensive firefighting of late-stage disease to being able to intervene at its earliest point and deliver rapid, cost-effective treatment.

‘We’re at a tipping point and have the opportunity to revolutionise how we think about and treat cancer. A future is within our grasp where early detection is the norm.’

Initially researchers will aim to improve the current screening programmes, by increasing uptake and making them as targeted and non-invasive as possible. They will also develop screening tools for the many cancers where none exist [File photo]

Initially researchers will aim to improve the current screening programmes, by increasing uptake and making them as targeted and non-invasive as possible. They will also develop screening tools for the many cancers where none exist [File photo]

Eventually the researchers want to develop ‘precision prevention’, where the disease can be stopped before it even develops.

Scientists in Manchester are investigating how to take cells out of a person at high risk of developing cancer and reproduce them to test under which conditions they are most likely to turn cancerous, or which genes increase the risk.

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Within three decades they hope to be able to scan someone’s genes early in life and tell them whether they are likely to get cancer – and how to prevent it.

The university’s Professor Rob Bristow said another benefit of early detection would be reducing worry for the millions not at risk.

‘Being able to tell people ‘you have no risk for cancer for your entire life’, that would be fantastic, right?’ he added. 

‘That’s the reciprocal of finding those patients who are very high risk for cancer.’

The project has five years of funding – with £40million from Cancer Research UK and £15million from Stanford and Oregon – and the organisers hope more will flow in.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: ‘Now is the time to be ambitious. We have the potential to completely change the future of cancer treatment, turning it into a manageable and beatable disease.

‘Let us tackle this problem together and beat cancer.’