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University joins quest to discover why some patients stay cancer-free

Researcher looking through microscope in a laboratory.

Eminent philanthropist and three-time cancer survivor James Hull has joined forces with six universities across the country to investigate why cancer returns in some people and not others.

Focusing on patients who have had successful treatment of advanced cancer and in whom the cancer has not reoccurred for at least five years, researchers from Swansea University will join forces with colleagues from Surrey, Oxford, Cardiff, Manchester and Nottingham universities as well as Royal Surrey County Hospital to undertake non-invasive investigations of immune systems and tumour cells to identify any unique features which could explain why they have remained cancer free. 

Swansea researchers believe that these patients may have changes in the epigenomes and exosomes of their immune systems that enable the immune cells or secreted exosomes to attack and destroy the tumour. Findings from this study could help revolutionise immunotherapy treatment by reprogramming cancer patient immune cells to eliminate and potentially prevent cancer recurrence in patients.

The epigenome is all the modifications that occur across the genome turning genes on and off through a complex process of chemical modifications to DNA and the histone proteins that the DNA is wrapped around to form chromatin. Whilst DNA can be methylated, histone proteins can undergo a variety of modifications including acetylation and methylation to open or close chromatin regulating gene expression. Medicines are already used that can reverse the status of DNA methylation and histone acetylation in the treatment of cancer.

Exosomes are nanometer (50-200 nm) sized particles that are produced and released from cells sending signal to other cells around the body. They contain proteins, lipids and nucleic acids all of which can act as messengers to other cells. Exosomes are currently being developed as therapies against cancers.

Figures from Cancer Research UK indicate that there are around 363,000 new cancer cases in the UK every year. It is likely that a high percentage of those diagnosed will have a reoccurrence of the disease within two years of finishing treatment however why cancer returns in some patients and not others remains unknown.

Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at Swansea University, Steve Conlan said:

“New therapies continue to be developed to treat cancers, and include immune cell therapies such as the widely reported CAR-T cells, antibody therapies including antibody-drug conjugates, and synthetic nanomedicines where drugs are contained within nanoparticles to target them to tumours so they are more effective and cause less side effects.”

“Cancer can and does return to some patients following treatment(s), but other patients remain free of cancer. By understanding why some patients remain cancer free, we may be able to develop ways to treat those who do relapse. We hope that by investigating the immune system of long-term cancer survivors that these secrets can be unlocked.

“Swansea University Medical School has established the Swansea Continuum Biobank so that appropriate cancer survivors and matched healthy volunteer donors can participate in the Continuum research programme. Donor samples are collected by highly qualified research nursing staff in the Joint Clinical Research Facility in Swansea Medical School.”

Philanthopist Dr Hull, CEO and founder of Continuum Life Sciences, a cancer research company which is striving to find a cure for cancer, made the study possible with numerous financial awards to the universities involved.

Dr Hull said:

“I am very grateful to be a cancer survivor and wholeheartedly thank all those involved in my treatment journey. I want to find out everything we can about this devastating illness to spare future generations the difficulties I have gone through in my fight against cancer.

“Bringing together the best cancer experts in the country and equipping them with the resources they need is one way I can do this and I am very excited to see what they uncover.”

If you have had an aggressive, locally advanced and/or metastatic cancer which resolved completely with treatment and have remained free of the disease without maintenance treatment for 5 years or longer we would like to talk to you. Please email  or alternatively call the free phone number 0800 144 8488.

Find out more information about Continuum Life Sciences and read more about Dr Hull's story.

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