The UK will be transformed into a global hub for radiotherapy research, pioneering the use of the latest techniques such as FLASH radiotherapy and artificial intelligence, with a new £56 million research network announced by Cancer Research UK this week.
The network, Cancer Research UK RadNet, is the charity’s largest-ever investment in radiotherapy research and will accelerate the development of advanced radiotherapy techniques, challenging the boundaries of this mainstay treatment through world-first exploratory projects.
It will unite seven centres of excellence across the country: the Universities of Cambridge, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Oxford, the Cancer Research UK City of London Centre (a partnership between UCL, Queen Mary University of London, King’s College London the Francis Crick Institute) and The Institute of Cancer Research, London in partnership with The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust.
Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said:
“Radiotherapy is a cornerstone of cancer medicine, with around 3 in 10 patients receiving it as part of their primary treatment. The launch of our network marks a new era of radiotherapy research in the UK. Scientists will combine advances in our understanding of cancer biology with cutting-edge technology to make this treatment more precise and effective than ever before”.
Cancer Research UK supported some of the earliest research into radiotherapy, pioneering the use of radium to treat cancer in the 1920s. Modern radiotherapy works by targeting tumours with x-ray radiation, killing cancer cells by irreversibly damaging their DNA. Today, over 130,000 patients are treated with radiotherapy on the NHS every year.
Cancer Research UK RadNet aims to improve cancer survival by optimising and personalising radiotherapy. The centres will spearhead the development of new techniques for delivering radiotherapy and investigate new radiotherapy-drug combinations, including immunotherapies. Scientists will also focus on reducing the long-term side effects associated with this treatment, improving patients’ quality of life during and after treatment.
The innovative research that Cancer Research UK RadNet will deliver includes:
- Exploring FLASH radiotherapy, where pulses of high-dose of radiation are delivered in a fraction of a second. Research so far suggests that FLASH has the potential to cause less damage to the healthy tissue surrounding the tumour than traditional radiotherapy, where tissues are exposed to lower doses of radiation over a longer period, often resulting in long-term side effects.
- Further investigation into proton beam therapy – an innovative type of radiotherapy that uses beams of protons, instead of photons, to destroy cancer. This key difference means that when the heavier protons reach their carefully mapped out target, they come to a halt, delivering a powerful burst of radiation precisely where it’s needed. The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, in Manchester, is the first NHS hospital to provide high-energy proton beam therapy, with another centre to follow at University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust next year. Cancer Research UK RadNet will support researchers across the country to optimise this new technology and maximise patient benefit.
- Investigating ways to overcome hypoxia – low oxygen levels within tumours, resulting from rapid cancer growth that blood vessels can’t keep up with. Hypoxic tumours are far less susceptible to radiotherapy, as radiation interacts with oxygen to produce volatile molecules that help to destroy cancer. Scientists will develop better ways to identify hypoxic tumours and new treatments to oxygenate them, making radiotherapy much more powerful.
- Investigating why some cancers come back after radiotherapy by studying the role of cancer stem cells. These cells are remarkably resistant to radiation, and just a few stem cells remaining after treatment can cause a patient’s cancer to come back. For some patients, targeting stem cells could be the key to unlocking radiotherapy’s full potential.
- Developing and testing drugs that could be used in combination with radiotherapy. This will include immunotherapies – treatments that exploit the power of the body’s immune system to fight cancer. They will also research how tumours are able to repair DNA damage caused by radiotherapy and use the latest gene-editing technology to develop drugs that interfere with this process.
- Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence. Cancer Research UK RadNet researchers will use this technology to design personalised treatment plans guided by data from patients’ scans. This could improve the accuracy with which doctors deliver radiotherapy and provide new treatment options for patients whose tumours were once thought too risky to target with radiation.
Cancer Research UK RadNet will be a beacon, attracting leading researchers from across the globe to boost radiotherapy research capacity in the UK. £13 million has been allocated to form new research groups and fund additional PhD students in Manchester, London and Cambridge, ensuring the UK’s radiotherapy research community continues to thrive. The network will promote collaboration between diverse scientific fields, with a share of £4 million available to all centres for joint research projects, conferences and secondments between locations.
Dr Adrian Crellin, Cancer Research UK Trustee and Former Vice-President of the Royal College of Radiologists, said:
“I’ve seen first-hand how successful radiotherapy can be for patients that I treat, but it’s been frustrating to see the UK lagging behind other countries when it comes to prioritising research into this vital treatment. Cancer Research UK’s investment will overhaul radiotherapy research in the UK to bring the next generation of treatments to patients sooner.”