Cancer Research UK has today announced a £4 million ($7.8 million AUD) investment to expand the UK’s first ever national study collecting blood and tissue samples from patients who have died from cancer, in a bid to shed light on what happens during the final stages of the disease.
Doctors will invite terminally ill patients – most of whom are taking part in clinical trials – to discuss with their families the issue of donating samples before deciding to be part of this pioneering research. This will give the researchers and the scientific community a detailed timeline of the biological changes in a patient’s cancer from diagnosis to death.
This is particularly crucial for speeding up research for brain tumours and cancers such as lung cancer that often spread to the brain, because samples often cannot be taken from patients when they are alive.
Scientists will analyse tumour samples from the original cancer site and other organs where the cancer may have spread, along with cancer cells and DNA found in blood samples.
These samples will help scientists understand how tumours develop and spread in advanced cancer, how and why tumours become resistant to treatment, how the body reacts to the disease during the final stages, as well as looking at potential ways to boost the immune system to fight the disease.
The study will now expand across seven hospitals* thanks to Cancer Research UK’s investment.
Professor Charles Swanton, scientific lead from the Cancer Research UK UCL Centre and Francis Crick Institute, said: “We are so incredibly thankful to the patients and families who have agreed to take part in this study. With their generosity, scientists can carry out research that will help save lives in the future.
“Until this study, we really didn’t have any way nationally to take samples from multiple sites of cancer within a patient at the end of their life. This study will help us complete the whole cancer picture – from diagnosis to death – that we need, in order to understand how it changes and evolves over time and how drug resistance occurs.”
Lydia Knott, aged 79 from Newtown Linford, Leicestershire, was diagnosed with lung cancer two years ago having never smoked in her life.
She has undergone surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy and is currently on the TracerX study.
Lydia said: “I had no qualms about agreeing to take part. I didn’t even have to go away and think about it. I said yes immediately.
“I understand it’s a sensitive area and not everyone is going to feel comfortable about this topic. But my view is that if it helps other people and helps to advance research into cancer treatments then it can only be a positive study.
“I have a very clear understanding of what it involves and my children back my decision. At the moment I’m very fit, active and mobile but if, after my death, parts of my body can be used for valuable research purposes, I’m more than happy with this.”
Maggie Wilcox, a retired nurse from Surrey and breast cancer survivor, is a patient advocate with the Independent Cancer Patient Voice for the PEACE trial.
She said: “As a cancer survivor, I understand that a cancer diagnosis can be very stressful for the patient and their families. And doctors and families are often hesitant to talk about contributing a patient’s body to research after death.
“But I think it’s important to give the patient a choice to contribute to research that will help save others’ lives. And often patients are a lot tougher than they may seem. It’s an opportunity to create something positive out of a difficult experience. I hope one day that donating tissue after death is as normal as donating blood.”
Dr Iain Foulkes, executive director for research funding at Cancer Research UK, said: “When the study opened in London last year, there was an overwhelming number of patients who wanted to contribute to research after their death. This was incredibly humbling and now with this investment more people will be able to leave a life-changing legacy and help accelerate research that could benefit thousands of people in the future.”
Notes: The funding for the project comes from Cancer Research UK’s Centres’ Network Accelerator Award which will give £4 million to the Cancer Research UK UCL Centre and collaborators over five years. The trial is not yet open for patients across the UK.