Combating cancer

Scientists at the University of York are changing the horizon for cancer sufferers

Researchers in the Department of Biology have made breakthroughs in the treatment of prostate and breast cancer, while York’s Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (CRD) is rapidly progressing the treatment of cancer in children.

Professor Norman Maitland, Director of the YCR (Yorkshire Cancer Research) Cancer Research Unit based in York’s Department of Biology began to study prostate cancer in the 1980s.

In 2005, his team became the first to identify prostate cancer stem cells, which are believed to be the ‘root cause’ of prostate cancer.

York alumnus and current academic in York’s CRD, Dr. Bob Phillips, was drawn to York – initially to study, then to work – because of the unique way the University studies childhood cancers.

Now his theoretical work combating childhood cancer overlaps with his practical work at Leeds Children’s Hospital. In the 1980s childhood cancer victims had a 30-40 per cent survival rate; today, thanks to research conducted at vital institutions such as York’s CRD, more than 80 per cent of children survive the disease.

Yu magazine spoke to both academics about the impact of their work on the lives of real cancer sufferers and recent breakthroughs.

The York academic

“When I started out in research,” says Professor Maitland, “I remember someone senior in the field telling me that prostate cancer was an ‘insignificant disease in old men.’ That was the attitude back in the 1980s.

“Around this time a young trainee surgeon came to see me who wanted to study prostate cancer. I asked him to write down everything he knew about prostate cancer – and he came back to me with just a few pages.

“At first I thought he might be lazy – but after doing some research of my own I found that the information on the two sheets of paper was all that existed on prostate cancer. I took the surgeon on as my student.”

This attitude towards prostate cancer has changed over the years due to our ageing population; the longer lifespan of men has led to a rise in the number of sufferers.

Turning research into medicine

Since 2005, supported by a £2.15m award from Yorkshire Cancer Research (YCR), Maitland and his researchers have been exploring the molecular properties that allow these cells to spread, survive and resist aggressive treatments.

“It’s our job to find out how to undermine a cell that is programmed to survive,” he explains.

“Our research has found a way to turn the cancerous stem cells into cells very like those in the rest of the cancer and therefore less dangerous. The changed cells are now susceptible to the treatments normally given to prostate cancer patients.

“In essence we’re proposing a two stage treatment. The first step is to make the cancerous stem cells friendly, the second is to kill the now friendly cells.”

One of the drugs that is part of the two stage process is currently being used on cancer patients – though in a much higher concentration than Maitland’s team think necessary.

“It usually takes five to ten years for a drug to go from research to market – but as this drug has already been through testing and past regulators the entire process may be available for general medical use within two years.”

The alumni researcher

Dr Bob Phillips came to York to study for a PhD in 2009. He was drawn to York because: “the Centre for Reviews and Dissemination (CRD) is one of only three places in the country that do this sort of work. The CRD has an international reputation.”

He has stayed on following his PhD and now splits his time between Leeds Children’s Hospital where he is an Honorary Consultant in Paediatric and Adolescent Oncology, and the University of York where he works as a Senior Clinical Academic at the University’s CRD.

York’s CRD take a innovative approach to answering medical questions that tend to be brought to their attention by patients. For example, says Dr. Phillips, “how can I stop my child from being sick following chemotherapy treatment?”

To answer these questions the CRD “gather together lots of clinical studies that deal with roughly the same questions and stitch them together so we create a more coherent and better answer than you could get from a single study.”

If the team can get a clear answer from the adding together of numerous studies, they then “work to get that information out to clinicians in lots of different ways to try and influence their practice. This involves working on the NICE guidelines and international guidelines that advise clinicians how to work.

“The Department of Biology’s work on prostate cancer, through to my work in children’s cancer, demonstrates that York is covering the whole of cancer – from research to getting practical medicine in place on the ground and treating patients.”