National Physical Laboratory

NPL scientists set to create 'Google Earth' of cancer tumours

Pioneering research led by scientists at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) – to transform how cancer is diagnosed and treated by creating a brand new way to map tumours – is set to receive £16 million funding.

Dr Josephine Bunch using a secondary ion mass spectrometer at NPL
Dr Josephine Bunch using a secondary ion mass
spectrometer at NPL

They are aiming to develop the 'Google Earth' of tumour mapping, creating a reproducible, standardised way to fully understand different tumours in unprecedented detail.

The ground-breaking project has been made possible by one of the biggest funding grants ever awarded by Cancer Research UK, which the charity intends to invest over the next five years. The funding will come from the first Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge awards – set up to revolutionise the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer and help scientists attack some of the hardest, unanswered questions in cancer research.

The team beat stiff international competition to secure the grant. Their project was selected by an international panel of experts from a shortlist of nine exceptional, multi-disciplinary collaborations from universities, institutes and industry across the globe.

Sir Harpal Kumar, Cancer Research UK's chief executive, said: "Cancer Research UK set up the Grand Challenge awards to bring a renewed focus and energy to the fight against cancer. We want to shine a light on the toughest questions that stand in the way of progress. We're incredibly excited to be able to support this exceptional team as they help us achieve our ambition.

"Cancer is a global problem, and these projects are part of the global solution. Together, we will redefine cancer – turning it from a disease that so many people die from, to one that many people can live with. We will reduce the number of people worldwide affected by cancer and achieve our goal of beating cancer sooner."

Through their Grand Challenge project, Dr Josephine Bunch, from NPL, and her team of chemists, physicists and biologists, will use new mass spectrometry imaging techniques and instruments they've developed to study individual breast, bowel and pancreatic tumours.

From whole tumours right down to the individual fats and proteins in cells, they will map and visualise every bit of these tumours to create faithful 3D representations for the first time. By doing this, they aim to create the cancer equivalent of 'Google Earth' that will allow scientists not only to identify a 'house' and where it is in a country, but also who's inside, what they're eating and watching on TV.

The team will also create a database containing their data which will be available to researchers around the globe, to help create a standardised way for other scientists and doctors to use these new techniques in their work and in the clinic.

Dr Josephine Bunch said: "We're so excited about this project. We're going to carry out analysis that has never been done before using instruments that have never been used together anywhere in the world, to gain insights into the molecular basis of this cruel disease.

"We want the information we produce to be the Rosetta Stone of cancer metabolism. We want to unlock the secrets that are contained in tumours by using this combination of imaging techniques and different analyses. This cannot be done in isolation – to unlock these secrets we need physicists, chemists and biologists working together.

"We hope that doing this will lead to the development of better, faster ways to diagnose and treat cancer and help more people survive for longer."

The multidisciplinary team led by NPL includes researchers from Imperial College London, the Cancer Research UK Beatson Institute, AstraZeneca, the Francis Crick Institute, the Institute of Cancer Research, Barts Cancer Institute and the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute.

Find out more about NPL's Grand Challenge project

Find out more about the National Centre of Excellence in Mass Spectrometry Imaging at NPL

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Last Updated: 1 Mar 2017
Created: 14 Feb 2017

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