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Glasgow scientists lead the way in next generation radiotherapy research

Professor Anthony Chalmers and Jak Deschner

Glasgow scientists have been awarded a major cash boost from Cancer Research UK to pioneer new radiotherapy technologies and techniques that could help more people survive cancer in the future.

Experts from the Cancer Research UK Glasgow Centre are set to receive £3.5 million over the next five years. Glasgow has been chosen to be one of just seven centres of excellence in a UK-wide network that will accelerate advances in radiotherapy research. Centres will also be located in Manchester, Cambridge, Oxford, Leeds and London.

Cancer Research UK is investing a total of £56 million in Cancer Research UK RadNet – the charity’s largest ever investment in radiotherapy research.

More than 130,000 patients in the UK are treated with radiotherapy on the NHS every year.

In its simplest form, the treatment works by targeting tumours with x-ray radiation, killing cancer cells by irreversibly damaging their DNA.

Cancer Research UK supported some of the earliest research into the treatment of cancer with radiation and pioneered the first use of radiotherapy in the 1920s.

In Glasgow, the funding will support researchers to develop and test new radiotherapy-drug combinations and new radiotherapy techniques. Scientists and doctors will focus on improving radiotherapy for patients with hard-to-treat cancers and cancers with poor prognosis, such as lung, brain, pancreatic, and head and neck cancers.

And they will carry out research to develop personalised radiotherapy treatment, by developing new imaging techniques and identifying molecular and genetic signatures of cancers that can predict how well each patient will respond to radiotherapy.

Professor Anthony Chalmers, Clinical Oncology chair at the University of Glasgow, is lead researcher for the centre which could help to save the lives of more people with cancer in the city – and across the UK – in the future.

He said: “We are very proud that Glasgow has been awarded this grant to bring the next generation of radiotherapy treatments to patients sooner.

"The funding will transform our ability to develop new radiotherapy technologies that will help more people beat cancer, while causing fewer side effects so that patients will have a better quality of life after treatment.

“An important fact about radiotherapy is that it can cure many cancers. In my view, this ability isn’t given enough attention.

"Our focus will be on patients with cancers that are too advanced or are too close to critical healthy tissues for us to cure them with current protocols.

"In the long-term we hope that this funding will help us develop new treatment strategies so that more people with lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, head and neck cancer and brain tumours will actually be cured of their disease.”

“It’s exciting to be able to bring all this work together under RadNet, because that’s how we’re going to cure more patients. Using molecular and genetic information on how cancers respond to radiotherapy and combining it with new drugs and sophisticated technologies is what’s going to make the big difference for patients.”

Jak Deschner, from Stepps, near Glasgow, knows all too well why radiotherapy research is so important.

The 53-year-old former IT manager, who lives with wife Anjie and daughter Sophie, 22, took part in a radiotherapy trial at the Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre after being diagnosed with a brain tumour in July this year.

A keen cyclist, Jak was returning home from a ride on Wednesday, June 12, when he had a seizure that caused him to come off his bike.

He lost consciousness by the side of the road and woke up in the back of an ambulance on his way to Glasgow Royal Infirmary.

He was discharged that day but, following a second seizure on Thursday, July 4, he was given a CT scan which revealed a tumour on his brain.

Jak was transferred to the Queen Elizabeth University Hospital six days later, where he underwent brain surgery to remove as much of the tumour as possible.

A sample of his tumour was sent for testing, and on Wednesday, July 17 – exactly five weeks after his first seizure – he was diagnosed with grade 4 glioblastoma, the most common type of brain tumour.

Jak said: “It was almost like a double shock when I was diagnosed with cancer. There was a part of me that was focused on the brain surgery as the most important thing and, once it was done, there was almost a sigh of relief.

"It was a real hammer blow to hear I had cancer. You think you’ve climbed a mountain when, in actual fact, you’ve just plateaued.” 

Following his diagnosis, Jak underwent six weeks of radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

As part of his treatment, he took part in the PARADIGM-2 trial, a radiotherapy trial which is led by Professor Chalmers.

The trial is looking at whether a drug called olaparib improves the way radiotherapy and chemotherapy work in people with glioblastoma.

Welcoming Cancer Research UK’s investment in radiotherapy research in Glasgow, Jak said: “It touches my heart that research that’s local to me is going to go on and develop better drugs and better treatments for people like me.

“When I was offered a place on the clinical trial, I said bring it on. Even if it doesn’t help me, it will help the researchers find out important information about the effectiveness of the additional drug with radiotherapy and things like toxicity levels.

“I’m proud to hear that Glasgow is set to benefit from this big investment in radiotherapy research, and I’m proud of the part I’ve played in the ground-breaking research taking place just down the road from me.”

Jak’s treatment will continue with chemotherapy for five days, every 28 days. While he has been told his cancer won’t be cured, it will be managed with chemotherapy and quarterly scans.

He says he has plans to make the most of life and to get back on his beloved bike, including cycling the length of the UK in September next year to raise money for Cancer Research UK.

He said: “I found out that temozolomide, the chemotherapy drug I’m taking, was first manufactured by Cancer Research UK scientists in Glasgow – and it’s now the gold standard treatment for people with glioblastoma.

"That’s why I’ll be cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats next year, to raise money for more vital research to help more people like me in the future.”

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK chief executive, said: “Radiotherapy is a cornerstone of cancer medicine, with around three in ten patients receiving it as part of their treatment.

"The launch of our network marks a new era of radiotherapy research in the UK. Scientists will combine advances in our understanding of cancer biology with cutting-edge technology to make this treatment more precise and effective than ever before."


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