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Development of new drugs for pancreatic cancer

Recipient: Dr Steven Whittaker

Host Institution: Institute of Cancer Research

Title: Development of new drugs for pancreatic cancer

Type of award: 2016 Research Innovation Fund

Funding: £73,587

Pancreatic cancer has the lowest survival rate of the 21 most common cancers. Hence, there is a desperate need for new drugs, or combinations of drugs, that can block the growth of the tumour and improve patient survival. Pancreatic cancer is particularly unusual in that nearly all tumours have a common genetic alteration in a gene called ‘KRAS’ which drives the growth of the cancer. Using drugs called PI3 kinase inhibitors we can block some of the effects of KRAS. However, they are not enough to stop cancer growth on their own.

We therefore need to investigate new strategies of making cancer cells more vulnerable to these drugs. With state of the art technology called ‘CRISPR’, researchers are now able to ‘switch off’ each individual gene in cancer cells grown in the laboratory. By doing this they can then treat the cells with drugs in order to find out which genes, when switched off, make the cancer cells more vulnerable to treatment.

In this project, Dr Steven Whittaker and his team aim to identify genes to switch off in order to improve the effectiveness of PI3 kinase inhibitors. By doing this, the researchers hope that they will be able to develop new drugs to be taken in combination with PI3 kinase inhibitors to halt the growth of and fight against pancreatic cancer.

KRAS mutations are highly prevalent in pancreatic cancer and are drivers of pancreatic tumour development. Therefore, research that aims to identify of novel therapies targeted towards KRAS effectors could improve patient outcomes and combat drug resistance. This is an extremely promising area of investigation and it has the potential to improve survival rates through the identification of new drugs and novel treatment strategies.