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Let's beat cancer sooner

Although 2014 is fast receding from our memories, our researchers’ achievements will stand the test of time.

We’ve previously blogged about some of the important discoveries they made in 2014 – you can read them here – but outside the lab, several people close to Cancer Research UK received much deserved recognition in the New Years Honours list.

Special mention should be made of Dr Jean King who received an MBE for her work on tobacco control at Cancer Research UK, and Professor Dame Jessica Corner, Dean of Health Sciences at the University of Southampton, who picked up a DBE earlier in the year. We previously funded Professor Corner’s research into improving the early diagnosis of cancer.

But as well as this Royal recognition, we’re delighted to see that the researchers we fund were recognised with several other prestigious prizes and honours.

Honours in the clinic, medals to the lab

Outside the New Year’s list, congratulations are also due to Professor Kairbaan Hodivala-Dilke, deputy director of the Barts Cancer Institute, who receives the British Society for Cell Biology’s Hooke Medal. Professor Hodivala-Dilke is researching how new blood vessels form, and how tumours take control of the process in order to hijack supplies of oxygen and nutrients – you can read about some of her team’s recent research here.

Another of our cell biologists, Dr Duncan Odom from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, received the Royal Society’s Francis Crick Medal. You can watch Dr Odom give the prize lecture — on the complex networks of genes and molecules that control how cells grow and develop — and how they can go wrong in cancer in the video below.

As well as these prestigious awards, in November, at the UK’s biggest meeting of cancer researchers — the NCRI Conference in Liverpool — we awarded our own annual research prizes. You’ve already heard from Lifetime Achievement award winner Professor Sir Mike Richards, but we also gave prizes to three leading researchers and a team who have each made exceptional contributions to beating cancer.

The future leaders

Elizabeth with our chief scientist, Professor Nic Jones - she said: “I am tremendously fortunate to work with a fantastic team of enthusiastic and committed colleagues, and this award is a recognition of the work that we have done together. Given that I work on highly unusual cancers, I see this award also as an acknowledgement of the importance and value of these models in cancer research. It is a truly enormous honour and encouragement.”

Elizabeth said: “I am tremendously fortunate to work with a fantastic team of enthusiastic and committed colleagues, and this award is a recognition of the work that we have done together. Given that I work on highly unusual cancers, I see this award also as an acknowledgement of the importance and value of these models in cancer research. It is a truly enormous honour and encouragement.”

At Cancer Research UK we’re supporting the next generation of researchers – both at the start of, and throughout, their careers.

So our Future Leaders Prizes are awarded to young scientists whose research shows they have clear potential to become world leaders in the future.

We awarded two prizes this year – to Dr Elizabeth Murchison at the University of Cambridge, and Dr Serena Nik-Zainal from the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger Institute.

Dr Murchison (pictured right with our chief scientist, Professor Nic Jones) studies the rare phenomenon of transmissible cancers in animals. In the vast majority of cases, because our immune systems reject cells from outside our own bodies, it’s impossible to “catch” somebody else’s cancer.

But special conditions in just two animal species — dogs and Tasmanian devils — have made it possible for transmissible cancers to develop.

Dr Murchison studies the genetics of Devil Facial Tumour Disease to understand how it first emerged and has adapted to spread between hosts like a parasite.

Serena said: "I am very honoured to receive this prize as it recognises this new area of mutation signatures in cancer research. This is hugely encouraging for me and helps to support my next research goal, which is to understand why tumours show these signatures of genetic damage, what causes them, and whether we can do anything to try to stop them."

Serena said: “I am very honoured to receive this prize as it recognises this new area of mutation signatures in cancer research. This is hugely encouraging for me and helps to support my next research goal, which is to understand why tumours show these signatures of genetic damage, what causes them, and whether we can do anything to try to stop them.”

The goal is to halt the spread of a disease that threatens to wipe out the species, but her research into cancer evolution also provides general insights into how cancers develop and spread, which might help us tackle big problems like drug resistance in people.

Dr Nik-Zainal (pictured left with our chief scientist) is using the power of modern DNA analysis technology at the Sanger Institute to search for and decipher the genetic signatures of DNA-damaging agents like tobacco and UV light, and of susceptibility genes like BRCA1 and BRCA2.

In 2012, while she was still completing her PhD, we reported on Dr Nik-Zainal’s work when the team used powerful computer programmes to identify the patterns of DNA damage during a tumour’s development.

And in 2013 we reported on the team’s work when they discovered more than 20 distinct cancer signatures.

Her work is critical in helping to understand how and why cancers arise, and the effects a cancer’s origins have on its behaviour and response to treatment.

The team that’s beating breast cancer before it happens

Teamwork is a vital part of any modern scientific endeavour. And our Translational Research Prize recognises the particular importance of scientists and doctors working together to translate laboratory discoveries into benefits for patients and the public.

The prize went to the International Breast Cancer Intervention Studies (IBIS) team led by Professor Jack Cuzick at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine.

The IBIS team are investigating whether breast cancer therapies which are currently used to help ensure the disease does not return after surgery — “adjuvant” therapy — might also be able to prevent the disease occurring at all. Their landmark IBIS trial showed that tamoxifen reduces the incidence of breast cancer by a third in high risk groups, such as those with a family history of the disease.

The team are running a second trial, IBIS II, looking at how anastrozole — a newer drug which tends to have fewer problems with side-effects — compares with tamoxifen as a preventative. Their results, published in late 2013, suggest that for some women, the drug could be even more effective.

Life in the nucleus

Ron said: "The fact that this award comes from Cancer Research UK makes it all the more special as it's a charity that I admire and respect enormously. I've had the privilege of support from Cancer Research UK for over 30 years and it's been a marvellous organisation to work with."

Ron said: “The fact that this award comes from Cancer Research UK makes it all the more special as it’s a charity that I admire and respect enormously. I’ve had the privilege of support from Cancer Research UK for over 30 years and it’s been a marvellous organisation to work with.”

Professor Ron Laskey was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Prize for his work revealing the molecular details of what happens inside the nucleus of the cell.

Professor Laskey’s discoveries have been pivotal in understanding the networks of molecular machinery that control how DNA is copied and how molecules are transported around the cell. These processes are critical in cell division, and it is errors in this molecular machinery that cause cells to proliferate in cancers.

Understanding how these processes work, and how they go wrong, is important for researchers who are designing targeted treatments, and the molecules Professor Laskey studies have also been developed into new screening tests that are currently in clinical trials.

Professor Laskey’s prize recognises a lifetime devoted to beating cancer, and we’ve long supported his work — as Cancer Research UK and our predecessors the Cancer Research Campaign and Imperial Cancer Research Fund.

During his time as Charles Darwin Professor of Embryology at the University of Cambridge, Professor Laskey helped to create our Gurdon Institute, a joint venture with the Wellcome Trust. And as a leader and mentor, he has helped to launch and inspire the careers of many current and future leaders in cancer research.

Awards ahead

And so a new year is now in full swing. At Cancer Research UK we are always striving to do more to bring forward the day we beat cancer, and as we start to see the results of our bold research strategy — which sets an ambition to see three in four cancer patients survive the disease within the next 20 years — we’re seeing ever more prize-winning results from our fantastic researchers.

Already this year we’ve heard that Dr Helen Walden, who researches how cells repair damage to DNA, will be awarded the Colworth Medal by the Biochemistry Society.

Meanwhile, Professor Chris Marshall (our 2011 Lifetime Achievement Prize winner) will receive the society’s Centenary Medal, recognising a career’s achievements deciphering the signals inside cells, including the discovery of one of the RAS family of signalling molecules, which we now know misbehave in a quarter of cancers.

And results from our IMPACT study into prostate cancer screening, led by Professor Ros Eeles at the Institute of Cancer Research, have just been named “best paper” by European Urology.

And of course, we’ll be awarding our own prizes again in the autumn — nominations for those Future Leaders, Translational Research and Lifetime Achievement Prizes are open now, and we look forward to celebrating another great year for our research community.

Joe Dunckley is a digital communications manager at Cancer Research UK

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