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Why our supporters fund PhD students in cancer research


The Institute of Cancer Research, London, is committed to training the next generation of cancer researchers. But why do our supporters choose to fund our PhD students? Graham Shaw spoke to head and neck cancer charity Oracle Cancer Trust to find out.

Posted on 02 August, 2016 by Graham Shaw

ICR Scientists in the Lab (Charles Milligan for the ICR, 2014)

The Institute of Cancer Research is one of the most influential cancer research institutions in the world, and the top academic research organisation in the UK.

We are passionate about our science and the benefits it brings patients, but we also have another very important function. The ICR is a higher education institution and a vital part of our mission is to train up the next generation of cancer researchers and clinicians.

PhD students play a vital role in our research and in the past they’ve been involved with many of our important discoveries.

Each year about 20 students begin their PhDs at the ICR to advance our knowledge of cancer and improve treatments.

Our PhD students work in a multidisciplinary environment alongside clinicians from our partner hospital, The Royal Marsden. Past projects have run the gamut of innovative and exciting cancer research, from 3D printing for radiotherapy, to using evolutionary algorithms to design drug molecules.

Vital research

But supporting PhD students for four years is expensive, so we’re hugely grateful to charities like Oracle Cancer Trust that choose to fund PhD projects at the ICR.

Oracle Cancer Trust raises money for head and neck cancer research, a field that lacks funding and where there is a pressing need for new, more effective treatments.

Head and neck tumours account for 8% of all cancers and are one of the fastest rising forms of the disease. Because of their location in the body, they can be extremely debilitating.

Treatments for head and neck cancers can be effective if the disease is caught early on, but surgery can leave patients permanently scarred and they may require further operations to rebuild areas such as the jaw. Radiotherapy, meanwhile, can cause challenging side-effects like difficulty swallowing, which can have a serious impact on a patient’s quality of life.

Sarah Bender is Charity Operations Manager at Oracle Cancer Trust. She became involved with its work after her husband was diagnosed with head and neck cancer in 2008. For her, funding PhD students is a no-brainer.

Sarah told me that Oracle Cancer Trust prioritises funding for PhD students. “It is these students that are often involved in the early-stage projects which lay the scientific foundations for the large-scale clinical trials,” she said.

“Oracle is proud to fund these PhD students as they take their first steps into a research career and without many of their research projects we simply wouldn’t be developing the treatments we are for patients.”

Exceptional talent

The ICR’s outstanding reputation helps it attract some of the best PhD students in the world, so Oracle is tapping into a rich vein of talent.

Oracle funds fundamental ‘proof of concept’ research, using exceptional students with passion for their work to find new or improved ways to treat head and neck cancer. It currently funds three PhD student projects at the ICR with an additional project beginning in October 2016, but they are planning more, both here and elsewhere.

Elise Lepicard’s PhD project is with Dr Simon Robinson, leader of the ICR’s Magnetic Resonance team, and is using advanced imaging techniques to measure oxygen levels in head and neck tumours.

In some types of head and neck cancer, low oxygen levels can trigger a survival mechanism that makes tumours more resistant to radiotherapy. Elise is measuring oxygen levels using MRI, CT and PET scans to assess treatments that try to prevent this resistance from developing, to see which ones are best for patients.

Jennifer Kieselmann is working on a pioneering imaging project with Professor Uwe Oelfke for an exciting piece of technology at the ICR and The Royal Marsden called the MR Linac, which combines MRI scanning with radiotherapy to deliver more precise treatment in real time. It’s the first device of its kind in the UK

Developing more effective treatment

Jennifer’s work will enable automated detection of tumours and healthy organs on MRI images, allowing for a more accurate delivery of radiation doses, minimising the amount applied to healthy tissues.

Victoria Roulstone works with Professor Kevin Harrington, Joint Head of the Division of Radiotherapy and Imaging. Her project uses viruses in combination with cancer drugs to treat head and neck cancer.

Some viruses, like the common reovirus, can target and kill a range of tumour types. Early clinical studies have shown these viruses reduce cancer cell growth, but when used in combination with new cancer drugs, the effect is potentially much greater. Victoria is screening cancer-targeting viruses against potential drug compounds to find the best treatment combinations for head and neck cancer patients.

Oracle hopes these early studies will lead to more research and then on into the clinic, helping patients with head and neck cancer live more comfortably and boosting their survival chances.


head and neck cancer
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