The North East’s leading role in the fight against cancer

Cancer Research UK

Mark Lane gets the inside track on how medical professionals in the region are playing a significant part in the battle against cancer, the local fundraising work of Cancer Research UK and how your business could help

Cancer affects us all – it doesn’t discriminate, young, old, rich, poor. Each year there are around 365,000 cases of cancer in the UK, a sobering statistic. Most of us will know somebody with the illness and most will have lost loved ones or friends to it.

Despite these frightening statistics, and despite the fact that the very word ‘cancer’ in the eyes of many is still synonymous with a death sentence, the fact is that there are many wonderful things being done in the research and medical field when it comes to tackling this high profile illness.

Some more facts: in the 1970s, less than a quarter of people with cancer survived. But over the last 40 years, survival has doubled, so that today half will survive. The aim at Cancer Research UK (CRUK), which last year spent £546m on cancer research work, is that three-quarters of people will be surviving the disease by 2034.

To find out more about the fight against cancer in the North East, I met with Professor Ruth Plummer, professor of experimental cancer medicine at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research (NICR), Newcastle University (pictured above).

Professor Plummer, who is mainly based at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital, actually wears a number of hats. As well as her Newcastle University links, she is also an honorary consultant medical oncologist in Newcastle Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and director of the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Trials Research Centre within the Northern Centre for Cancer Care, which is a dedicated clinical trials unit based within the regional cancer centre. She leads the Newcastle Experimental Cancer Medicine Centre and also the CRUK Newcastle Cancer Centre.

Her clinical practice involves leading on the systemic therapies for skin cancer, with a portfolio of trials across all phases of drug development. In addition she runs a Phase I all-comers practice, taking responsibility for one of the most active Phase I units in the UK.

That’s quite an intro but, then again, this is quite a role. Indeed, the remarkable, genuinely life-changing work being done by Ruth and her inspiring colleagues simply cannot be understated.

I wanted to find out more about clinical trials for cancer and how they are offering hope to many. Answering, Ruth says: “These trials mean we are at the clinical beginning of potential new cancer treatments in patients. With any cancer we have a human cell that has gone wrong, it is growing out of control and sending out signals to get its own blood vessels. You get a lump or a tumour with its own blood supply then this sends cells off to spread elsewhere. A laboratory will look at cancer cells and try to understand what is going on.

“With clinical trials, we have taken this learning all the way through – starting with a bright idea in the laboratory and taking it into the clinic.

“What is different about clinical trials with cancer drugs and other drugs is that with other drugs, for instance to treat blood pressure, you are trying to alter a bodily function. With a cancer drug, if you want to treat the cancer, you have to kill the cells. But even though those cells are abnormal, they are still human cells.

“Thus with other drugs, you can trial them on healthy volunteers, to measure doses, impacts, and so on. To find the dose for cancer drugs, we are treating cancer patients who are on clinical trials because they have run out of options. It is the end of the line – the patients I see are the ones with the limited treatment options.”

Ruth points out that the real strength of the Northern Institute for Cancer Research at Newcastle University is that half the
staff are clinically qualified, the others scientists and chemists. “We have that chain running all the way through from scientists looking at biology, chemists designing a molecule to target it, and then scientists doing pre-clinical testing before we do a clinical trial.”

The question we are all interested in is, where are we in the battle against cancer? Ruth says: “Things have certainly changed a lot. In the 80s and 90s, there were a few small changes but over the last decade there have been some huge developments.

First came more targeted treatments where we started to understand the genetics of tumours so that we could target a cancer’s specific genes, proteins, or the tissue environment that contributes to cancer growth and survival.

“For example, in melanomas where I work, there were no new treatments for 40 years. UK scientists led on research which showed half of melanomas had a mutation called BRAF which is effectively like a growth switch being stuck on – in the chain of proteins, one is stuck on all the time. By discovering the drug that turned this switch off, we went from having no effective drugs in this area to a drug with a 60 to 80 per cent response rate.

“We have seen similar things with lung cancer. We had a lady recently who was given a new, targeted drug called osimertinib on a trial. This gave her another three and a bit years.

“The other big change is the introduction of immunotherapy whereby you harness the immune system to attack the cancer. Ordinarily, our bodies are not designed to attack cancer cells – as they are not designed to attack our own cells. Cancer cells use this as a cloaking device. New immunotherapy drugs are called checkpoint inhibitors as they block that checkpoint and allow the immune system to attack the cancer. These have been game-changing.”

Ruth loves her role. “I have a great team who all get what we are trying to do. If I didn’t do this job, I would really miss seeing patients as just listening to peoples’ stories and what they get on with and cope with, you just think that we have to try and help.”

As well as research there is another very important side in the battle to beat cancer. That is one of fundraising, without which research couldn’t happen.

To get a better understanding on fundraising at CRUK I spoke to Sam Moralee, the organisation’s fundraising manager for Tyne & Wear and Northumberland. To offer some background first of all, CRUK is the only charity in the UK fighting all 200 types of cancer. It funds scientists, doctors and nurses as well as providing cancer information to the public.

In addition, its policy development team develops evidence-based policy to inform Government decisions related to cancer and research (including policy around smoking and obesity).

I asked first of all about the Northern Institute of Cancer Research and how it came into being. Sam explains: “Launched in July 2009, the Newcastle Cancer Centre at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research (NICR) is a collaboration between Cancer Research UK, North of England Children’s Cancer Research Fund, The Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, Newcastle University and Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

“CRUK Centres are established research centres that develop local and national partnerships with charities, universities, cancer networks, NHS Trusts, government agencies and industrial partners.

“By promoting collaboration between scientists, doctors, nurses and funding organisations, CRUK Centres aim to speed up the delivery of new therapies and improve cancer services in the area.

“The NICR is at the heart of the Newcastle Cancer Centre. It has a strong track record in developing and testing new treatments, helping to take novel ideas from the lab to patients, faster than ever before. There are now 14 CRUK Cancer Centres in the UK delivering world-class research, improved patient care and greater local engagement.”

The North East is a key region in terms of cancer-fighting infrastructure. As well as being home to the Cancer Research UK Newcastle Centre, it is also home to the CRUK Drug Discovery Programme, which is working to translate discoveries from basic and clinical research into new drugs.

So what about cancer statistics for the region? Sam tells me 16,500 people are diagnosed with cancer each year in the North East, and 7,900 die. Cancer deaths have fallen by ten per cent in the past decade.

The region is doing a lot to help in the fight against cancer –for example, local scientists discovered a way to exploit genetic weaknesses in cancer cells that prevent them from fixing their DNA. Sam says: “This brings about a new family of drugs, called PARP inhibitors, which specifically kill cells with faulty BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes. These faulty genes can substantially raise the risk of ovarian and breast cancers, among others.”

The region also ran the first in-human trial of Rucaparib. Sam explains: “Our scientists in Newcastle carried out the 1st in-human trial of rucaparib (Rubraca). Rucaparib was the first PARP inhibitor

to reach clinical trials. Rucaparib was approved by the EMA in 2018 and was later FDA approved as a treatment for certain patients with advanced ovarian cancer.

“We helped develop a drug to treat advanced bladder cancer. The initial stages of developing the new drug, balversa (Erdafitinib), were performed by our scientists at Newcastle University. The drug received FDA approval for treatment of advanced bladder cancer in 2019.”

Among other notable achievements, scientists in Newcastle helped make the pioneering discovery that aspirin could help prevent bowel cancer in people at high risk.

Most excitingly, there is more in the pipeline. Sam tells me the team in Newcastle is currently creating a network to develop immunotherapy as a treatment for liver cancer.

There are other promising strands of research underway, though one of the most touching and poignant relates
to children’s cancer treatment. Sam says: “We’re personalising treatment for children’s brain tumours. Professor Steven Clifford, at Newcastle University, is personalising treatments for medulloblastoma, the most common type of brain tumour in children. He is studying a large number of samples to identify genetic differences between tumours that indicate how well they respond to treatments.

“This could lead to a test that would tell doctors what the best course of treatment is for each patient, helping improve survival for children.”

All this pioneering work requires funding – and lots of it. Thankfully, there are plenty of ways to get involved and it is hoped the North East business community continues its fine track record of supporting cancer research through fundraising.

Business beats cancer

Cancer Research UK fundraising activity in the North East, volunteer and staff led, relies on working
in partnership with corporate organisations both big and small.

As part of its commitment to building even stronger and long- lasting links with business leaders in the North East, it is bringing its Business Beats Cancer initiative to Newcastle.

Business Beats Cancer brings together business leaders across the UK to fight cancer one city at a time. Board members are the ambassadors for Cancer Research UK in their cities and membership to these boards is exclusive but growing. Members work with their business networks to host annual fundraising events.

There are already successful boards operating in Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast. Since launching in 2006 in Glasgow, Business Beats Cancer has raised over £500,000.

If any North East business would like to get involved or find out more about supporting Cancer Research UK, please call Sam Moralee, Local Fundraising Manager on 07881 816059 or email her at sam. moralee@cancer.org.uk.