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DNA helix

Gene tests could one day lead to better cancer treatments

Last year, amid much fanfare, we set up our Stratified Medicine programme, to try to establish a national high quality, cost-effective genetic testing service for people with cancer within the NHS.

Today the government’s Technology Strategy Board (TSB) has announced a £6 million investment into six genetic technology projects that are vital to the programme’s aims.

The TSB funds areas of research and innovation to encourage economic growth in the UK, and it is investing over £50 million into stratified medicine.

Winners of the £6 million will be developing new ways to analyse the genetic make-up of tumours or developing computer systems to collect, store and analyse clinical and genetic data.

The TSB forms one part of the partnership Cancer Research UK has set up between charities, the government and and the private sector to develop a national programme of stratified medicine.

What is ‘stratified medicine’?

All cancers are driven by genetic faults, but the precise nature of these faults varies from patient to patient. The new generation of cancer treatments is each targeted to a specific fault inside cancer cells, so establishing a way to test patients’ tumours and work out which faults drive them will be a key part of chosing the right treatments.

A diagram of how stratified medicine works

Stratified medicine explained

However in the UK at the moment there is no routine or standardised process for this type of testing.  Cancer Research UK believes it is vital for the NHS to be ready for this new generation of targeted treatments.

Plans for a stratified medicine programme began a year ago, and since then we have worked hard with experts across the cancer community to develop a plan of action of what needs to be done and how it should happen.  The Stratified Medicine Programme is now set to lay the foundations for genetic testing of tumours by establishing a model of how this will be done, that can be scaled up to the nationwide level.

This will give doctors access to tests that they need, to help them decide on the best cancer treatment for each patient.

How will it work?

Initially, the programme will work with seven hospitals and three laboratories, who will collect and analyse 9,000 tumour samples from one of six types of tumour: lung, breast, bowel, prostate, ovarian and melanoma.  The testing will look at genes and mutations that have been selected by the UK’s doctors and researchers.

A key aim of the programme is also to routinely ask patients for their permission to link the genetic information with relevant clinical and treatment information. This data will help inform researchers and help them identify links between particular genes and specific treatments.

Who’s involved?

Our partnerships are vital to the success of the programme, and it’s only through them that we can make this programme a success.

Our joint relationship with industry, government and the cancer community has helped, and continues to help, shape the initial plans to start this programme. We’re delighted that the government has committed to developing new funding and commissioning models for genetic testing, based in part on the evidence that we will develop during the programme.

Our funding partners AstraZeneca and Pfizer share our excitement about the huge potential of stratified medicine, and in particular the chance to identify patients for clinical trials and to develop research opportunities.

And it’s only through working closely with the hospitals and laboratories that we can shape the model of how exactly this research pilot will work and how it will fit into the NHS.

What happens next?

The programme has almost finished selecting the seven hospitals and three laboratories that we will be working with – we will be announcing who these are later in the year.

The government’s Technology Strategy Board and Cancer Research UK are, together, fighting towards a ‘shift in the war on cancer’.

Our team has grown to include a whole range of experts from the NHS and we’re all excited to be pushing forward on this ground-breaking programme focussing on genetics, moving one step towards beating cancer.

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Anthea Martin June 14, 2011

The Catalyst Club is a new fundraising initiative that aims to raise £10million towards Cancer Research UK’s work in persoanlised medicine, including the Stratified Medicine Programme. You can find out more at

http://supportus.cancerresearchuk.org/Campaign-pages/catalystclub/