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Pan-European project aims to screen patients for hidden cancer cells

Scientists across Europe are to collaborate on a €6m project to develop a technique of screening a patient’s entire blood volume for cancer cells that have evaded treatment.


The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London is to play a leading role in the programme, which will attempt to detect tiny numbers of cells left behind after treatment that might otherwise spread around the body.


Detecting circulating tumour cells – or CTCs – will help researchers to assess whether or not treatment has been successful, and to predict the risk that a tumour will metastasise to new sites in the body. This could help doctors tailor treatment to the individual.


Current CTC tests can only detect tumour cells in half of patients with metastatic disease, as CTCs are present in the blood at very low concentrations. Doctors must otherwise rely on scans, which can miss very small tumours that can later grow and spread.


The ICR, which will receive the second largest share of the European Union (EU) grant at €800,000, will drive the consortium’s research on CTCs in prostate cancer. Professor Johann de Bono, Head of the Drug Development Unit at the ICR and The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, will lead the team and work alongside long-term partner University of Twente on the programme. Developing a ‘CTC trap’, designed to filter all of a patient’s blood in order to detect CTCs, could allow much earlier-stage disease to be detected.


“Scientists are looking for better ways to test whether patients’ tumours have truly been eradicated by treatment,” Professor de Bono said. “CTCs are showing a lot of promise as a biological indicator of a tumour’s activity, but the technology we have to detect them is not sensitive enough. This substantial grant will enable a major international collaboration between leaders in the field and should allow us to develop much better technology. Ultimately, this will help us determine whether patients have been cured, or require further treatment.”


The grant is further acknowledgment of the ICR’s expertise in the field of biomarkers – tests for tumour activity – and in particular CTCs. Dr Timothy Yap recently received the Prostate Cancer Foundation’s Young Investigator award to further his work developing a blood test for CTCs that would predict how prostate cancer patients will respond to treatment. The grant will eventually allow him to conduct a large-scale clinical trial to assess whether CTCs can be used to predict patient survival.


The project team consists of a consortium of 11 companies, universities, and research institutes from the UK, France, Italy, Estonia, Germany and the Netherlands. Starting in September, the first two years will be devoted to the development of a ‘CTC trap’ prototype. This work will be carried out by four companies in co-operation with the University of Twente. During the final two years, clinical trials will be carried out in patients with breast and prostate cancer to investigate the effect of the ‘CTC trap’.


Professor Leon Terstappen, Professor of Medical Cell Biophysics at the University of Twente, who leads the international project, added: “We want to find out more about ‘that one cell’ that is left behind and that suddenly becomes active years after the primary tumour was treated. To this end, we need to examine a patient’s entire blood volume, and that is where the ‘CTC trap’ comes in.”


The grant is part of the EU’s commitment to funding collaborative research through its Seventh Framework Programme (FP7)*. The FP7 Cooperation Programme, which runs from 2007-2013, is estimated to be worth over €500million.




Media Contact: ICR PR Manager Tatjana Trposka on 0207 153 5312 or after hours 077217 47900


Notes to Editors:


*FP7 Seventh Framework Programme:

The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) is one of the world’s most influential cancer research institutes.


Scientists and clinicians at the ICR are working every day to make a real impact on cancer patients’ lives. Through its unique partnership with The Royal Marsden Hospital and ‘bench-to-bedside’ approach, the ICR is able to create and deliver results in a way that other institutions cannot. Together the two organisations are rated in the top four cancer centres globally.


The ICR has an outstanding record of achievement dating back more than 100 years. It provided the first convincing evidence that DNA damage is the basic cause of cancer, laying the foundation for the now universally accepted idea that cancer is a genetic disease. Today it leads the world at isolating cancer-related genes and discovering new targeted drugs for personalised cancer treatment.


As a college of the University of London, the ICR provides postgraduate higher education of international distinction. It has charitable status and relies on support from partner organisations, charities and the general public.


The ICR’s mission is to make the discoveries that defeat cancer.


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The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust

The Royal Marsden opened its doors in 1851 as the world’s first hospital dedicated to cancer diagnosis, treatment, research and education.

Today, together with its academic partner, The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), it is the largest and most comprehensive cancer centre in Europe treating over 44,000 patients every year.  It is a centre of excellence with an international reputation for groundbreaking research and pioneering the very latest in cancer treatments and technologies. The Royal Marsden also provides community services in the London boroughs of Sutton and Merton and in June 2010, along with the ICR, the Trust launched a new academic partnership with Mount Vernon Cancer Centre in Middlesex. 

Since 2004, the hospital’s charity, The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, has helped raise over £50 million to build theatres, diagnostic centres, and drug development units. Prince William became President of The Royal Marsden in 2007, following a long royal connection with the hospital.

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