Developing radical new strategies and technologies to detect cancer at its earliest stage is the bold ambition of a new transatlantic research alliance, announced today by Cancer Research UK and partners.
“Now is the time to be ambitious and develop effective new ways to detect cancer earlier. It’s an area of research where we have the potential to completely change the future of cancer treatment, turning it into a manageable and beatable disease for more people." - Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK
Early detection is essential to help more people beat cancer – a patient’s chance of surviving their disease improves dramatically when cancer is found and treated earlier.
Understanding the biology of early cancers and pre-cancerous states will allow doctors to find accurate ways to spot the disease earlier and where necessary treat it effectively. It could even enable ‘precision prevention’ – where the disease could be stopped from ever occurring in the first place.
UK statistics highlight the major improvements in survival that could be achieved. 5-year survival for six different types of cancer is more than three times higher if the disease is diagnosed at stage one, when the tumour tends to be small and remains localised, compared with survival when diagnosed at stage four, when the cancer tends to be larger and has started to invade surrounding tissue and other organs.*
Advances in early detection technologies will help decrease late-stage diagnosis and increase the proportion of people diagnosed at an early and treatable stage, so a future for more patients can be secured.
Cancer Research UK is setting out a bold ambition to jump-start this under-explored field of research, collaborating with teams of scientists from across the UK and the US.
The International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED) is a partnership between Cancer Research UK, Canary Center at Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, UCL and the University of Manchester.
Great strides have been made through existing screening programmes, such as for bowel, breast and cervical cancer, and increasing public awareness and GP urgent referral of patients with suspicious symptoms. However, for many cancer types no screening tools exist and new technologies for detecting cancer have been slow to emerge.
Previously, researchers taking on this challenge have faced many barriers, including lack of funding and collaboration opportunities, meaning research has been small scale and disconnected. Individual research groups have chipped away at big challenges with limited success. By combining the ‘fire power’ of some of the leading research institutions in the world in early detection, ACED will accelerate breakthroughs, leading to quicker benefits for patients.
However, like looking for a needle in a haystack, the very low levels of tell-tale early cancer signs make it incredibly difficult to detect cancer early. Scientists in the Alliance will work together at the forefront of technological innovation to translate research into realistic ways to improve cancer diagnosis, which can be implemented into health systems. Potential areas of research include:
- Developing new improved imaging techniques and robotics, to detect early tumours and pre-cancerous lesions
- Increasing understanding of how the environment surrounding a tumour influences cancer development
- Developing less invasive and simpler detection techniques such as blood, breath and urine tests, which can monitor patients who are at a higher risk of certain cancers
- Searching for early stress signals sent out from tumours or surrounding damaged tissue as a new indication of cancer
- Looking for early signs of cancer in surrounding tissue and fluids to help diagnose hard to reach tumours
- Harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence and big data to look for signs of cancer that are undetectable to humans.
As part of the Cancer Research UK’s early detection strategy, the charity will invest an essential cash injection of up to £40 million over the next five years into ACED. Stanford University and the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute will also significantly invest in the Alliance, taking the total potential contributions to more than £55 million.**
Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Now is the time to be ambitious and develop effective new ways to detect cancer earlier. It’s an area of research where we have the potential to completely change the future of cancer treatment, turning it into a manageable and beatable disease for more people.
“Real progress in early detection can’t be achieved by a single organisation. Benefits for patients will only be realised if early cancer detection leaders from around the world come together. No more siloes, no more missed opportunities; let us tackle this problem together and beat cancer.”
The Prime Minister said: “Every two minutes, someone in the UK has their world turned upside down when they are diagnosed with cancer. Thanks to the pioneering work of UK researchers and our world-beating NHS, more people are surviving than ever.
“However, there is more to do to detect and cure this disease earlier. That is why I am pleased to welcome this new UK-US alliance, driven by Cancer Research UK.
“This is the transatlantic partnership at its very best. 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.”
It’s crucial that new early detection advances can also be quickly implemented into the health service to save and transform lives. The Alliance will be a globally unique platform that is able to test and validate early detection innovations in real-world hospital and healthcare settings. The partners will engage with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the research field to ensure discoveries can achieve economies of scale and reach patients as soon as possible.
The Alliance will also be in a unique position to train and develop a new generation of early cancer detection research leaders, learning from the very best that both countries and all five centres have to offer.
The benefits of investing in early detection research are clear. And through ACED, the global early detection research community will grow and develop technological innovations that radically improve outcomes for people diagnosed with cancer.
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*Based on 5-year age-standardised net cancer survival in England of adults diagnosed between 2013 and 2017, followed up to 2018; cancer sites for persons: colorectal, kidney, lung. For women specifically: breast, uterine and ovary.
For example: 98% of breast cancer patients survive their disease for five years or more if it’s diagnosed at the earliest stage (stage 1), compared to just 26% of patients when cancer is diagnosed at the latest stage (stage 4). But at the moment only around 44% of breast cancer patients (with a known stage) are diagnosed at the earliest stage.
Diagnosing lung cancer at its earliest stage increases the chance of surviving the disease for 5 years or more to 57%, compared to only 3% when it is diagnosed at the most advanced stage. At the moment, only around 21% of people with lung cancer (with a known stage) are diagnosed at the earliest stage, compared to around 50% who are diagnosed at stage 4, when treatment options are limited.
Source: “Cancer survival in England – adults diagnosed” released by the ONS, August 2019. Incidence by stage in England data source: “Stage breakdown by CCG 2017” released by National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service (NCRAS), February 2019.
**Cancer Research UK will invest up to £40 million in the next five years into the Alliance. Over the next five years Cancer Research UK is set to fund around £3 million per UK Member Centre to support their growth and up to £30 million to support collaborative research and infrastructure across the Alliance. Each US party will contribute up to $10 million to research projects and infrastructure. Taking the US contribution from the two partners to up to $20 million.