A revolution in cancer research
As the University receives £2.4 million in funding for research into brain tumours, we speak to Professor Margaret Frame of the Edinburgh Cancer Research Centre about her team’s work and a revolution in the research of cancers.
“New technologies drive new innovations in cancer research,” says Professor Frame, who was appointed OBE in the Queen’s New Years Honours. “Changes have been massive in recent years and advances in technology are a big part of the reason.”
Professor Frame is referring, in part, to machines called mass spectrometers that measure the masses within an ionised sample, something that has allowed researchers to identify proteins that interact with one another and better understand the complex interactions of proteins that drive cancer.
“It has been revolutionary,” says Professor Frame. “And I think one of the the most important changes in cancer medicine is the way that we now think about cancer in terms of personalising treatment. It’s about understanding the molecular make up of individuals’ tumours and deciding what is driving them, so that we can make subsequent treatment more effective with less side effects. We didn’t have that kind of information before, but new technologies have completely changed the outlook.”
One outcome of the advancement in research was the 2015 discovery of a completely new function for a known cancer-promoting protein that showed it could change the way in which the immune system recognised tumours and potentially changed the way they respond.
“This discovery means that there is now an opportunity to use existing drugs in a different way,” says Professor Frame. “And such ‘repurposing’ of existing drugs has now led to a clinical trial – this will give us really robust evidence that could lead to us taking this new knowledge to patient treatment. It really is a privilege to discover and understand things we didn’t know before that may help patients in the future.”
The latest funding boost of £2.4 million comes from leading charity Cancer Research UK and will help Professor Frame, Professor Val Brunton and their teams to understand more about how to target tumours with drugs. They will focus on a type of brain tumour called glioblastoma, the most common type that is fast-growing and likely to spread.
The researchers will use new types of cancer stem cell samples, developed by taking cells from patients’ tumours during surgery and then growing them in the laboratory – the pioneering work of Prof Steven Pollard from Edinburgh University’s Centre for Regenerative Medicine.
“A stem cell is a kind of ‘starter cell’,” says Professor Frame. “It has the potential to grow indefinitely or develop into many different cell types in the body. When a stem cell multiplies, the resulting cells either remain as stem cells or, under the right conditions, can become a type of cell with a more specialised function, such as a (differentiated) brain cell. Cancer stem cells arise following genetic alterations and begin to form tumours that often go on to infiltrate the surrounding brain tissue.
“So we plan to use these new stem cell models to study how a specialised group of molecules called adhesion proteins contribute to the formation of these tumours.”
The team’s goal is to discover how best to use existing and new drugs, and drug combinations, to treat the disease.
“It’s painstaking but very exciting work,” says Professor Frame. “Brain tumours are one of the hardest types of cancer to treat, and survival has barely improved over the last 40 years, so to be able to pursue new approaches to treating them is very rewarding.”
And the desire to keep the individual at the heart of the research is crucial to Professor Frame’s work:
“I’m really excited about personalised treatments and understanding individual cancers,” she says. “When I started 30 years ago, curing people wasn’t considered a likely option, but I think now with immunotherapy and other approaches, there is the possibility that drug combinations can realistically keep people living longer and even cure them.
“And the science excites me, too. I love new technologies and our increasing ability to make important discoveries, and linking them where possible to help patients. That’s why I enjoy contributing to the training of our next generation of cancer research scientists – they are the ones who will carry today’s research forward and will give us new ideas and understanding in the future.”