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Using mice ‘avatars’ to improve personal cancer treatments

Kevin Harrington appearing on BBC Panorama_Image credit: BBC, 2015

One of Professor Kevin Harrington’s areas of expertise is in head and neck cancers – a diverse and challenging range of diseases which often have poor survival rates and are challenging to treat with conventional options.

Panorama features a study led by Professor Harrington which is pioneering the use of mouse ‘avatars’ in head and neck cancer research. Avatars could help tailor cancer treatments to patients by matching drugs to a tumour’s unique characteristics – because both mouse and patient have the same cancer type, down to the same mix of genetic mutations.

The research works by taking a sample of a patient’s cancer and implanting it into a mouse to seed the formation of a tumour. Once the tumour begins to grow, researchers can test for mutations that may make the patient’s cancer susceptible to specific drug treatments – and then analyse how these treatments affect the tumour.

At the ICR, this genetic analysis is carried out by our Tumour Profiling Unit, which was also featured in the programme.

By testing treatments in the mouse avatar first, the idea is that doctors can judge which treatment will be the most effective for each patient, and have greater confidence of success.

Panorama features the story of Anne, who had an aggressive form of salivary cancer and who had exhausted the standard treatment options. Although researchers tried to seed a tumour in a mouse to explore new treatment options, it failed to grow – currently, the process is successful in only about 40 per cent of cases. Sadly during the filming process, Anne died.

The avatar idea is still an experimental approach for treating cancer. It has been offered as a potential treatment approach to only a very few patients worldwide. In the future, avatars could be one of a range of options available to doctors in selecting the best individual therapies for people with treatment-resistant cancer.

More about Professor Harrington's work

Tumour assassination – using smart targeted treatments to enhance anti-cancer radiation responses