Astronomy & cancer: Researchers join forces to study CUP

pharmafile | June 7, 2021 | News story | Sales and Marketing oncology 

Astronomers from Durham University have joined forces with cancer researchers to advance the diagnosis and treatment of cancer of unknown primary (CUP), following a grant from Innovate UK.

The study, called CUP-COMP, will run for 18 months and aims to establish a way of assessing and comparing the impact of genomic sequencing in tissue and blood in patients with CUP at seven NHS sites across the UK.

The collaboration is between the Christie NHS Foundation, Durham University, Roche UK, and Concr, following a grant of almost £1 million from Innovate UK.

Durham astronomers will use statistical methods normally used to understand the evolution of the universe to help model the success of cancer therapies across a range of datasets. They hope the modelling can show how different therapies affect different cancers so future treatments can be tailored to individual patients.

CUP means that cancer has spread in a person’s body (secondary cancer), but doctors can’t find its source. It is a common cancer with poor prognosis, affecting almost 9,000 people in the UK every year and accounting for around 2% of all new cancer cases.

Every day, approximately 24 people are diagnosed with, and 26 people die from, CUP. It is the fifth most common cause of cancer deaths, accounting for six per cent of all cancer deaths.

Despite significant advances and new drug development for other cancers, there are no approved immunotherapies and limited targeted therapies for CUP. Just one genomic biomarker for CUP is currently funded, with limited progress due to the lack of research and funding.

John Symons, Director of Cancer of Unknown Primary Foundation, said: “The ‘unknown’ element of a CUP diagnosis is particularly frustrating and frightening for patients and their family and friends. Patients understand that diagnosis is the key to effective treatment and the better the diagnosis, the better the chances of an effective therapy.

“CUP-COMP is an exciting, leading edge trial examining genetic changes in CUP tumours alongside blood-based biomarkers, which can help reveal the origins of a person’s cancer and predict responses to existing or new treatments. It has the potential for significant patient benefit.”

The study will use Durham’s supercomputers to comb through DNA tissue and blood test results from cancer patients at seven NHS centres, lasting for 18 months.

Dr James Nightingale, Post-Doctoral Researcher in Astronomy and Astrophysics, Durham University, said: “With hospital records and patient information now stored digitally, a vast amount of data is available. Through detailed analysis and modelling, we can help avoid preventable diseases, improve cancer treatments and increase efficiency in healthcare.

“By exchanging knowledge with our colleagues in healthcare about the use of these huge datasets we can also better analyse images of galaxies to understand the evolution of the universe and the dark matter that scientists think allows galaxies to form and grow. It’s amazing to think that something happening at the far side of the universe could have real benefits for the treatment of cancer today.”

Kat Jenkins

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