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Seven cutting edge research projects, including a project led by Professor Peter Friend from the Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences, have been awarded grants totalling £1.1 million by the UK medical research charity, Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund (PCRF). The grants bring the charity’s total research support to £10 million.

Professor Peter Friend and the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund logo.
Professor Peter Friend

The new projects include a pilot clinical study to assess a treatment currently not available in the UK, a new way to personalise treatments that trigger patients’ immune systems to attack the cancer and an imaging technique to detect tumours earlier and assess the effectiveness of treatment faster and more easily.  

The grants take the charity’s research portfolio to 52 projects worth over £8 million, plus a further £2 million committed to the world’s first national pancreas tissue bank, created in 2016 to further accelerate research progress. 

PCRF founder and Chief Executive, Maggie Blanks said: “This is a truly exciting and innovative mix of projects, led by first class researchers, and are those which our scientific advisory panel believes have the biggest potential to deliver improvement in survival statistics of this most lethal cancer.

“Funding for pancreatic cancer research is scarce, so PCRF’s role remains essential. We give researchers the opportunity to progress and test the very best ideas that could deliver new ways to diagnose the disease earlier, deliver potential new treatments and monitor the effectiveness of existing treatments. Without PCRF, many of these important projects could not happen.  

“This is the fourth year we’ve been able to fund over £1 million in a single funding round. The fact that a small medical research charity like PCRF can deliver over £8 million of projects in total underlines just how determined our supporters are to help save more lives.

The seven projects are:

Professor Peter Friend, University of Oxford and Mr Srikanth Reddy, Oxford University Hospitals
Professor Friend and Mr Reddy will conduct a pilot study to treat 20 pancreatic cancer patients who are not eligible for surgery with high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) - a non-invasive way of killing cancer cells and improving pain control with minimal side effects. HIFU has not previously been used in the UK and the study will collect evidence about its feasibility, safety and benefit to patients. This will help determine whether a larger clinical trial should be considered.

Professor Feng Wu, Dr Joanna Hester and Mr David Nasralla from the Nuffield Department of Surgical Sciences are also involved in the study.

Dr Bart Cornelissen, University of Oxford
Dr Cornelissen’s project aim to detect pancreatic tumours earlier and evaluate treatments faster using imaging equipment (PET scanners) routinely used in hospitals. He has attached a radioactive atom to a chemotherapy drug and will test whether PET scanners can image the molecule to quickly confirm the presence and position of tumours. He will also test whether using this technique to measure drugs in the body before and after chemotherapy can determine whether the treatment is working.

Dr Mairéad G McNamara, University of Manchester/The Christie NHS Foundation Trust
Some pancreatic tumours removed from patients during surgery show changes in their cells that resemble genetic mutations seen in breast and ovarian cancers. These mutations are potentially treatable with drugs.  Dr McNamara will examine blood and tissue samples donated by patients with later stage disease to see if this similarity is present more widely.  This could inform which patients might benefit from trials of new drugs to target these mutations. 

Dr Claire Wells, King's College London
Dr Wells will investigate the interaction between two proteins called PAK4 and p85, which she discovered in her previous PCRF-funded research. She believes this interaction is a key driver of pancreatic cancer spreading to other tissues and will test two drugs that have been developed to block PAK4 activity, to see if either – or both – can block the cancer cells spreading.  

Professor Yaohe Wang, Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London
Prof Wang has analysed the tiny genetic differences between healthy cells and cancer cells in 100 pancreatic cancer patients. These ‘markers’ are what the immune system looks for in order to attack cancer. This project will design immune cells that can specifically attack cells displaying different markers. If successful, this could lead to a personalised treatment for pancreatic cancer, in which his immune cells are matched with the markers displayed by individual tumours, and infused into the patient to attack the cancer.

Dr Angus Cameron, Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London
In a project co-funded with the charity Worldwide Cancer Research, Dr Cameron aims to prevent normal cells in the pancreas from supporting pancreatic cancer growth and resistance to cancer treatments. Pancreatic tumours often have a thick coat of fibrous scar tissue which blocks chemotherapy drugs and prevents the body’s immune system from stopping the cancer growth. By targeting this protective coating, this project aims to make pancreatic cancer sensitive to chemotherapy and also predict whether new immunotherapy treatments that work with other cancers can help with pancreatic cancer. 

Professor John Marshall, Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary University of London
Prof Marshall has identified a molecule called alpha-v-beta-8 (avb8) which sits on the cell surface of many types of pancreatic cancer. Through his previous PCRF-funded research, has found an antibody that latches onto and blocks avb8.  This new project will investigate the exact role of avb8 in pancreatic cancer growth, which will confirm whether blocking it is a new, effective way to treat pancreatic cancer and should be progressed towards clinical trials.