Hope for bone cancer treatment as UEA makes biggest breakthrough in 40 years
PUBLISHED: 08:04 13 July 2020 | UPDATED: 17:17 13 July 2020
Young bone cancer patients could benefit from “kinder treatments” following new research by the University of East Anglia in what has been hailed as one of the biggest breakthroughs in decades.
And the critical breakthrough was partly made possible after help from the family of Sophie Taylor, from Sprowston, donated tissue to researchers.
Five-year-old Sophie, who had osteosarcoma, died in January 2019 after it was found cancer had spread to her lungs.
Dr Darrell Green, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, is part of the research team looking into stopping the spread of the cancer - which his best friend Ben Morley died of as a teenager.
He worked with Dr Katherine Finegan from the University of Manchester, who in their lab had been developing new drugs which could be used to help patients in future.
Sophie’s father Alex Taylor said: “We did not hesitate in offering Sophie’s tumour for research and to also have her DNA and RNA analysed to link it to additional drugs to pursue. It gave us hope and it was amazing to have Darrell fighting in our corner.”
Currently, bone cancer patients receive chemotherapy and face potential limb amputation due to the cancer spreading.
Despite treatment, the five year survival rate currently stands at 42pc and is the third most common childhood cancer with around 52,000 new cases every year worldwide.
The new drug’s early trials have offered promising results, slowing down the growth of a tumour, and with no spread to the lungs.
Dr Green said if clinical trials proved successful it would save more lives and stop patients facing “life changing limb amputations”.
Dr Green said: “It can rapidly spread to other parts of the body, and this is the most problematic aspect of this type of cancer.
“Once the cancer has spread it is very difficult to treat.
“In high school, my best friend Ben Morley became ill with primary bone cancer.
“His illness inspired me to do something about it myself because during my studies I realised that this cancer has been all but left behind others in terms of research and treatment progress.
“I want to understand the underlying biology of cancer spread so that we can intervene at the clinical level and develop new treatments so that patients won’t have to go through the things my friend Ben went through.
“Ultimately we want to save lives and reduce the amount of disability caused by surgery.
“If these findings are effective in clinical trials, it would no doubt save lives and improve quality of life because the treatment should be much kinder, compared to the gruelling chemotherapy and life changing limb amputation that patients receive today.”
Dr Green said the cancer has usually spread in a round a quarter of patients before they are diagnosed.
For half of patients, they can see a localised disease relapse with cancer spread detected later on.
The university said no significant breakthroughs in such treatments had been made four 40 years.
As part of the research, the team used most common type of primary bone cancer called osteosarcoma to investigate what caused the cancer to spread to other parts of the body.
Dr Green said it took a year to “crack” the new technology which can isolate “critical” tumour cells in patients’ blood and identify what causes it to spread through the body.
Dr Green said: “This driver that we identified is well known in cancer, but it is also considered ‘un-druggable’ because the cancer quickly becomes resistant to treatment, or it finds a way to escape being targeted.”
By engineering human osteosarcoma cells along with a regulator, the research team found the primary tumour grew more slowly and did not spread to the lungs – even when the tumours were left to grow for a long time.
Dr Green said the test showed how the cells were “hijacking” a particular part of the immune system that caused the spread.
Dr Finegan, from the University of Manchester, said: “This work has uncovered a novel treatment option for osteosarcoma, something we have not had for the last 40 years.”
The research was led by UEA in collaboration with the University of Manchester, the Earlham Institute, the Royal Orthopaedic Hospital in Birmingham, the Royal Papworth Hospital in Cambridge, Epistem Limited, the University of Sydney, the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.