Last week, Paul Burstow, Liberal Democrat MP for Sutton and Cheam and a former health minister, came to visit us at the Sutton campus here at The Institute of Cancer Research, London.
It’s part of my job to get politicians and policy makers interested in our work, and there aren’t many better ways of achieving than for MPs to meet up with our scientists face to face.
On this occasion, Mr Burstow’s visit had been motivated by a desire to meet with one of our postdoctoral fellows here at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), Dr Maria Vinci. Earlier this year, Dr Vinci had been selected from hundreds of biomedical science researchers to present her work in the House of Commons as part of SET for Britain
. The competition invites early-career researchers from across the UK to describe their work in a way that is accessible for non-scientists. Each year the top entrants are selected to present a poster of their work to politicians and a panel of expert judges in the House of Commons in March.
Paul Burstow was unable to attend that event, so instead he came to visit Dr Vinci at our labs at the ICR to hear about her work. Mr Burstow met with Dr Vinci and ICR Team Leader Dr Sue Eccles to hear about her project funded by The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs).
Dr Vinci has been developing a new method for growing 3D micro-cancers. Unlike traditional laboratory research methods where cancer cells are grown as flat sheets in dishes, this method of culturing cells allows us to more precisely model what would be going on inside a tumour. These micro-cancers show close interactions between cells as you would get in tumours, and even key hallmarks of malignancy, such as the ability of the cells to move and invade tissues, and to invoke their own blood supply from host tissue.
Dr Vinci can grow and analyse 96 of these micro-cancers at a time in a plate the size of a postcard and can follow their growth in real time using automated imaging techniques. Using this more relevant model, we can test potential anti-cancer drugs and followed their therapeutic effects in a more thorough cell system before moving onto later stages of the drug development process. Moreover, by ruling out drugs that aren’t effective at an earlier stage we can reduce the number of animals needed in research.
When I asked Dr Vinci about the competition she said: “I applied to SET for BRITAIN because it is a great opportunity to promote the work I do at the ICR. I hope that meeting the MPs will make the politicians more and more aware of how important is to have their support in order for the country to lead new scientific discoveries.”
During the visit, Mr Burstow also met with the ICR’s Deputy Chief Executive, Professor Paul Workman, to talk about the wider work of the ICR. As you might imagine of a former health minister, Mr Burstow seemed very engaged in the subject of medical research, asking a number of questions about the research that we do here and the way that we work. He was particularly interested in how we work with hospitals and industry, in the clinical trials we run and in the commercial implications of our drug discovery work.
Working in partnership is key for taking our research findings forward into a clinical setting. Professor Workman described our close relationship with partner hospital The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, and highlighted national schemes to support our translational approach, such as the NIHR Biomedical Research Centres
, Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres
and Cancer Research UK Cancer Centres
. These allow us to work with partners and funders to advance cancer research.
Professor Workman also described the way that we work with drug companies. Some of our discoveries lead to intellectual property that can be exploited commercially – allowing us to feed any revenue back into our research to deliver further patient benefits.
Where significant investment may be needed to realise the patient benefit of our research, we may license our discoveries to an industrial partner. This benefits the ICR as it allows us access to resources and skills outside of the organisation and to ensure our discoveries are developed quickly to deliver clinical benefit. In return, our early-stage research takes on a level of risk that might not be acceptable for a drug company, which has to deliver profits for its shareholders.
These sorts of conversations allow us to talk not just about the research that we do here and how this leads to improved outcomes for cancer patients, but also about how research is performed. As Maria said, we need support if we want the country to lead the way in new scientific discoveries, and to be discussing the kind of environment that we need.
This visit from our local MP gave us chance to talk about how we should be building a research environment where we work together to achieve our objectives more quickly. Engaging with competitions such as SET for Britain, or other schemes where scientists get to meet with MPs, gives us the chance not only to showcase the exciting research that’s going on here at the ICR, but also to make the case for science more generally.
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