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Major research investment into pancreatic cancer announced in Scotland

Posted by: Research 9 February 2016

Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon yesterday announced a massive £4m government investment into precision medicine which will support two major new programmes of work, one of which will focus on pancreatic cancer.

In recent years, researchers have made good progress understanding the basic mechanisms of cancer. However, it is still not entirely clear why some people develop certain cancers and others do not, or why some people respond very well to a particular treatment and others do not. This means that it can be difficult for doctors to predict which treatment will provide the best possible outcome for each individual patient.

Precision medicine is the practice of investigating molecular changes in the body and linking these changes to health and disease. This allows patients to be separated into distinct groups, for example on the basis of a specific DNA change occurring in the body, and then be given a tailored treatment that has been shown to work particularly well for that group – this ensures that doctors can give the right treatment to the right patient at the right time.

Professor Andrew Biankin has dedicated years trying to improve the outlook for people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer through his research. Around a year ago, he co-led an international team of researchers in discovering that pancreatic cancer can be split into at least four unique types (this research was published in Nature here and covered by Cancer Research UK’s press team here). This work was undertaken as part of the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC), through which the researchers studied the genetic make-up of tumours from 100 pancreatic patients. Professor Biankin’s team will now be taking forward his work on precision medicine through ‘Precision Panc’, a new initiative which will be supported by the major research investment announced yesterday.

The £4m investment aims to set up a “precision medicine ecosystem” which will see researchers across Scotland working in a coordinated way, sharing information and data to lead the fight against diseases such as pancreatic cancer. Two flagship programmes will be established, including ‘Precision Panc’, which will use state of the art technology to characterise the molecular make-up of pancreatic cancer tumours and use this information to allow patients to be rapidly recruited into a clinical trial suited to their individual genetic make-up.

Leanne Reynolds, Head of Research at Pancreatic Cancer UK, says: “Under this investment, researchers in Scotland will address one of the biggest current challenges in the treatment of pancreatic cancer; that many of the patients are unlikely to respond to the current standard of care and many of the newer targeted therapies are only effective in a sub-group of patients that is not currently predictable. Distinguishing those patients who will respond to a particular therapy from those who will not respond is a key question that will improve outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients. Pancreatic cancer currently has the worst survival rate of all the 21 most common cancers and has few treatment options. This has to change.”