The Christie NHS Foundation Trust and The University of Manchester have been awarded half a million pounds of funding from the Medical Research Council to produce a new immunotherapy for oesophageal cancer patients.

The move is part of a £2million funding package for hard to treat cancers, announced by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last week.

The oesophagus is commonly known as the food pipe and carries food from the throat to the stomach. More than 9000 people are diagnosed with oesophageal cancers in the UK each year, and this disease is responsible for 5% of cancer related deaths.

New treatments are necessary because even when the most common form of the cancer (OAC – oesophageal adenocarcinoma) is discovered at an operable stage there is a 50% risk of it reoccurring after surgery and chemotherapy. Only 10%-15% of patients with OAC live beyond 5 years from diagnosis.

Immunotherapies that boost the immune system and help the body fight the cancer can prolong life for up to 20% of patients.

The interdisciplinary research team has learnt how, in some cases, the body’s immune system shuts down its own anti-cancer defences, so they want to find a way to stop this happening.

This lab-based work involves an ‘RNA therapeutic’, using a technology similar to the COVID19 mRNA vaccines. The RNA molecules that the team will study can switch immune cells on, and they will design a new strategy to focus the delivery of medicines to a specific cell. The team will then put the new RNA-based therapy inside the cancer, targeting the specific group of cells responsible for disrupting the anti-cancer immunity.

Dr Sara Valpione, consultant oncologist at The Christie and research fellow at The University of Manchester said: “We are so pleased to have received the funding to enable us to test our hypothesis in the lab. If we can create a new medicine that can precisely target a specific type of cell within the tumour, and restore anti-cancer immune responses, this will be a game-changer for oesophageal cancer patients, bringing new hope.

“If we discover the drug performs as we anticipate in a lab setting, we will plan to start a clinical trial and test is on patients, although this is some way off. The results of this project should be very exciting, and will contribute to our understanding of immune-oncology and oesophageal cancer. Not only could this be a useful weapon against OAC, but it could have wider benefit, as our theory could be applied to other forms of the disease.”

Dr Megan Dowie, the Medical Research Council’s head of molecular and cellular medicine said

“We’re pleased to be supporting all the interdisciplinary teams that were brought together by our activity aiming to target technological innovation for understanding cancers of unmet need. Dr Valpione’s project has a great multidisciplinary approach to address important questions for oesophageal cancer. The collaboration of life and physical sciences researchers will help achieve the changes we need to address hard-to-treat cancers with potential for translation to other types of cancer too.”

Announcing the news on Linked In, the Prime Minister said: “Almost every one of us will know someone that’s been affected by cancer. And cancer of the brain, lungs and oesophagus are some of the hardest to cure with the lowest survival rates. But we can turn the tide against this devastating disease if we continue to drive innovation in medical research. A part of that is exploring the most pioneering techniques to tackle cancer, including the use of artificial intelligence. we announced a £2 million funding boost to four research teams across the UK that will do just that. A huge congratulations to those project winners.


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