After 8 successful years in Liverpool, this November the annual NCRI cancer conference moved north to a new home in Glasgow. An exciting event in the working year for our science team, the meeting offers a varied overview of the current state of play in the cancer research field across the UK and beyond. This week on the blog we’ll be sharing some of our highlights from the programme.The first talk of the conference, given by Professor Charles Swanton, saw us dive into the role of DNA in cancer evolution. All people are unique, and this means that the genes of each cancer patient and the way they evolve with disease, are also unique. Professor Swanton and his colleagues are trying to tease apart these differences, which are a key barrier in the development of personalised treatments. This research has already indicated that increasing complexity in the genetic material of tumours is associated with accelerated disease progression and poorer clinical outcomes, and may help the cancer evade the efforts of the immune system to destroy it. By continuing to track the genetic evolution of tumours from diagnosis onwards in a large number of patients, researchers hope to be able to take a practical step towards an era of precision medicine.
Of course, a better understanding of DNA in cancer are critical to our understanding of the molecular biology of the disease, how it progresses and how we can better treat it. So, it is no surprise that genetics featured in many of the talks over the duration of the conference. Professor Malcolm Dunlop discussed the role of genetics in bowel cancer risk. Around 24% of bowel cancer risk can be explained by genetic factors, and by understanding more about these factors we may be able to design interventions to minimise this risk. The research team have already found a number of small changes on single genes, known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (or SNPs), which may contribute to overall genetic risk. Elsewhere, they are also investigating the effects of modifiable lifestyle factors (including vitamin D exposure and exercise level) on our genes, and how this may subsequently affect bowel cancer risk. Whilst it seems that more exercise equals lower bowel cancer risk, the jury is still out on the protective effects of vitamin D exposure!
Another hot topic this year was the immune system, and the role of inflammation in cancer. Professor Fiona Powrie spoke about the ‘yin and yang’ of the immune system in cancer. On the plus side, many of the significant cancer breakthroughs in recent years have involved harnessing the innate power of the immune system. But, it’s also possible that a slow burning immune response to inflammation in the body could promote tumour growth. If so, this may explain why is has been so hard to harness the immune system to treat certain types of cancer, including bowel cancer. Professor Powrie’s research focuses on the role of microbes in this complex interplay. For example, she showed that immune responses to a particular microbe in the gut drive chronic inflammation. In turn, this may increase the risk of developing a number of inflammatory conditions, as well as bowel cancer. Early work also indicates that there may also be several genetic mutations which alter the immune response to certain microbes and confer an increased susceptibility to bowel cancer.
A large conference such as the NCRI instils an appreciation for the need of collaborative approaches from scientists in many fields to understand the ‘big picture’ in cancer. The power of this kind of collaborative approach was evident in a talk by Professor Richard Gilbertson, who spoke about the challenges of understanding and treating brain tumours. In spite of advances in our understanding of brain tumour biology over the past 50 years, the needle has barely moved in terms of treatment and outcomes. Professor Gilbertson spoke about work which combines expertise from natural medicine to develop new therapies, engineering new delivery systems for medication, as well as trying to bring neuroscience expertise into the cancer world.
As well as giving us the opportunity to learn about the latest advances in cancer research, the NCRI conference also enables us to identify areas where there is still an unmet clinical need. As this year’s meeting, we saw several topics which align well with studies that Cancer Research Wales is funding, including research into brain tumours and the role of gut bacteria in immunotherapy.
We believe that this scientific alignment is exciting for our team, our researchers, and those who support us! It shows us that not only are our projects are world-class, but also that we are funding research that is needed, and has the power to make a real difference for people living with cancer across Wales and beyond.
Blog written by: Dr Beth Routley