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Every cancer is different – our research on BBC Bang Goes the Theory

Posted on 17 March, 2014 by Henry French
Tonight’s episode of BBC Bang Goes the Theory featured an interview with Dr Udai Banerji, from The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust.

Dr Banerji spoke to science broadcaster Maggie Philbin about an exciting new clinical trial he is running at the Drug Development Unit, based at the ICR and the Marsden.

The trial is combining an innovative targeted cancer drug, known as an mTORC1/2 inhibitor, with a standard chemotherapy drug called paclitaxel. It is being tested in cancer patients who have failed to respond to other treatments or are otherwise unsuitable for standard therapy. It’s being trialled in patients with tumours in various different places – because it’s characteristics that tumours share at the molecular level, and not where they are found in the body, which often determine their response to treatments. Researchers at the ICR have been pioneering drugs that target the PI3 kinase and AKT pathways, for example, and has developed drugs that hit the same pathway as the drug highlighted in tonight's episode.

The trial illustrates a theme from the episode, which is that every cancer is different. A tumour is not a solid mass of identical cells, but a very complex ecosystem of cancer cells and their acolytes which adapts and changes over time. Every patient has a different cancer, and in the future, we need to adapt treatments more effectively to different groups of patients in order to treat them more effectively.

A game of chess

One neat way of thinking of the work of researchers in our Drug Development Unit – an analogy which Dr Banerji uses himself – is to think of treating some cancers as a game of chess. Although some lucky patients with more aggressive cancers do respond very well to treatment in the long term, treatment for others only holds off cancer until it makes its next move, which it does by evolving a new genetic change that makes it resistant to treatment.

Wellcome Library Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

So one of the next challenges facing researchers is to make a strong response – a second move in our game of chess – that will benefit people whose cancer has dodged the opening gambit. One option, which the trial featured in Bang Goes the Theory typifies, is to target more than one potential weakness at once, by combining different treatments together.

Read more about the work of our Drug Development Unit. And see this feature from the Observer for more on how researchers are tackling drug resistance in people with cancer.
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