Throughout the month of April, we’re focusing on issues in colorectal cancer as part of Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. Bowel cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK, and represents the second largest cause of cancer related death in Wales. Part of the cause of this problem is the fact that around 60% of bowel cancers are diagnosed in the later stages (stages 3 or 4), when the outcome is likely to be poorer. This week, we’re speaking to Dr Cerys Jenkins, who works on a Cancer Research Wales funded project developing a simple blood test that could be used to diagnose bowel cancer earlier.
Can you explain to us the scale of the problem that your research is trying to address?
Too many bowel cancers are diagnosed when the disease has already progressed to the advanced stages. Advances in screening technology, such as the FIT home testing kits, are now widely available and have improved the screening uptake for bowel cancer. This has led to more people being diagnosed at earlier stages. However, some patients are not eligible to take the test, and there are still issues around how acceptable people find the test.
For patients who go to their GPs with bowel symptoms, there are no specific ‘red flag’ symptoms for bowel cancer. This means that many people get referred for invasive diagnostic tests such as colonoscopies who don’t necessarily need them. In fact, only 3-5% of patients going for colonoscopies are found to have cancer and the large number of referrals can cause a delay for patients in need of urgent treatment.
The large number of referrals also causes a huge burden on the NHS in terms of time and expense. A colonoscopy can cost upwards of £500 per patient. There is currently a shortage in NHS staff able to perform the procedures, which causes longer waiting times.
We think that there is a desperate need for a more acceptable and accurate test for bowel cancer that could potentially be used by GPs or as a screening test.
What is your current research focus, and how will it help?
Thanks to the support of Cancer Research Wales, we have developed a simple, accurate, acceptable blood test to detect patients that have bowel cancer.
The blood test that I developed through my PhD research relies on a technique called Raman spectroscopy. The technique allows us to analyse blood samples by shining laser light onto blood samples and read off a unique ‘chemical fingerprint’ or Raman spectrum. After collecting the chemical fingerprints, we analyse them using an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm to recognise the differences between the chemical fingerprints of patients who have bowel cancer and patients that do not. We can then use this result to help doctors make a diagnosis.
With continued funding from Cancer Research Wales, we are now working to validate the blood test by conducting clinical research trials across South Wales.
You mentioned that your PhD was funded by Cancer Research Wales – how did you first become a bowel cancer researcher?
Honestly, by chance! I always loved science and that led me to study for a Physics degree at Swansea University. After my degree I got a job as an accountant. One day, when visiting a friend for lunch at the university one day I bumped into a Professor who said they had a PhD opportunity in bowel cancer diagnosis. My grandfather had bowel cancer, so I felt it was meant to be. It was an opportunity I couldn’t miss so I quit the accountancy job and jumped into doing a PhD in bowel cancer research!
Our work is really rewarding. To know that you are making a contribution to science is something that drives me every day and hoping that we can discover new things that could help people in the future is just super exciting.
What common misconceptions do people have about your job?
Some people think that PhD researchers and academics keep ‘student hours’ because we are based at a university. This couldn’t be further from the truth as we are driven by our work and we definitely don’t have the long holidays!
I also don’t think that people always realise how much we depend on charities and funding bodies like Cancer Research Wales to support our work. Without them, the university cannot always fund the research and it wouldn’t happen. Charity funding is critical to university research and is focused on delivering maximum impact.
What’s your favourite thing about your work?
The variety. No two days are the same in a research role. This week, for example, some of my time is spent conducting research experiments, some designing experiments and some collaborating with other researchers to develop both our and their work. The rest of my week involved days of meetings with other researchers discussing ideas, working at my desk writing research grants and results papers. Some days are spent designing and building prototypes for the lab, it’s great. I’ve recently also had the opportunity to gain some experience in teaching and lecturing, another new challenge that was really rewarding.
What do you do when you aren’t at work?
Work-life balance for me is really important. I have two golden retrievers that I love to go down to the beach and walk after a long day in the lab! When I’m not walking the dogs I love to cycle and play golf as much as possible!
What are the next steps for your research and for the development of the blood test?
I’m still at Swansea University – I’ve now finished my PhD and am a full-time research officer in the Physics department. Our research group is further developing the blood test to diagnose bowel cancer that I worked on during my PhD, with continued support from Cancer Research Wales.
Image on right: Cerys (right) with other lab members – Cancer Research Wales funded PhD student, Freya Woods (left), and Dr Rhys Jenkins (middle).
The work involves working alongside NHS partners to conduct clinical trials as well as doing further research in the laboratory to validate the science behind the blood test.
To translate the test from the lab I’ve also been involved in setting up a University spin-out company. Starting a company has opened me up to a whole new world! It’s been fascinating developing the research into a commercial product so that it can be translated from our research lab to something that could be transformative to the NHS and patients for the diagnosis of bowel cancer.
Lastly, is there anything you’d like to say to Cancer Research Wales supporters?
Firstly, many thanks. The fantastic effort that the community of people across Wales contribute to fundraising, events and much more, allows us to do our work fighting cancer. Moreover, our research relies on the brave patients who donate their blood to us in our trials. We also benefit greatly from the help and support of our partners in the NHS.
Cancer Research Wales have been a fantastic support to me personally as a researcher. They not only supported by PhD research, but continue to support me in the next step of my career, so that I can (hopefully!) bring a new diagnostic test for bowel cancer to the NHS.
Work such as my own is proof that support that goes to Cancer Research Wales does really translate into changes and breakthroughs in cancer research, right here in Wales. By supporting Cancer Research Wales, you are making a real difference.
We’d like to extend a huge thanks to Cerys for taking the time out from her busy research schedule to chat with us. We are incredibly excited by the work that Cerys and her colleagues are doing in Swansea to develop this blood test. If the next stage of their work is successful, this test could be used as a diagnostic test in the GP surgery and has potential as a new bowel cancer screening tool, too. If that were the case, it may transform the patient pathway in bowel cancer across Wales and beyond.