High-risk but high-reward research tackling hardest-to-treat cancers receives £2 million funding boost

Innovative researchers working to tackle some of the hardest-to-treat cancers, including through the use of artificial intelligence (AI), have received a £2 million funding boost, Science and Technology Secretary, Michelle Donelan, has announced today (Tuesday 12 September).

Four teams from across the UK will receive £500,000 each to drive forward high-risk but high-reward projects that could prove key to curing cancers with poor survival rates, including that of the brain, lungs and oesophagus.

Among the teams to receive government-backed Medical Research Council (MRC) funding is King’s College London, to determine how artificial intelligence could read lung scans and more accurately predict whether a cancer is resistant to treatment. The data will then be used to create targeted drugs that selectively kill treatment-resistant cancer cells.

The investment follows last month’s announcement of £13 million towards research for AI innovation in healthcare and comes ahead of the Science and Technology Secretary’s address to the CogX conference in London today, where she will outline the wider potential for AI to transform the UK’s economy, society and public services.

Speaking ahead of this afternoon’s speech, Science and Technology Secretary, Michelle Donelan, said:

While pioneering treatments have progressed enormously over the years thanks to world class researchers, cancer continues to impact on so many lives – whether through diagnoses or experiencing the heart-wrenching loss of a loved one.

By investing in high-risk but high-reward techniques – including artificial intelligence – we are backing our ambitious, world class researchers to build on generations of discoveries and give more people a fighting chance to live long and healthy lives.

The four projects were selected following a two-day ‘sandpit’ event – an interactive workshop – to promote new conversations and create teams of researchers across scientific disciplines from clinical, biomedical, engineering, physical and data sciences. The teams co-developed ideas and solutions to advance cancer research including for prevention, diagnosis and treatment.

Among the other projects receiving today’s funding is work by Imperial College London to develop techniques for the precision removal of brain cancer cells using a laser. The technique could reduce the impact of treatment on normal cells as well as provide real-time data on the nature of the cancer, which can then be used to inform post-operative treatment.

Elsewhere, Cardiff University and Brain Tumour Research are exploring the potential for a cryogel placed at the site of a brain tumour to deliver drugs directly to the site, in turn overcoming the blood-brain barrier and reducing the effects of drugs on non-targeted areas.

Meanwhile the University of Manchester and The Christie NHS Foundation Trust will explore ways to optimise engineered nanoparticle therapeutics for oesophageal cancer. Researchers hope to target cells that hinder effectiveness of medicines that boost the immune system against cancer.

Health and Social Care Secretary, Steve Barclay, said:

Research and technology are crucial in the fight against cancer, with AI already transforming the way we deliver healthcare in some settings by diagnosing cancer earlier, meaning people can be treated more quickly.

Cancer survival rates are improving and more people are being seen and treated than ever before.

We are looking at how new technology can help provide the best possible treatments for patients and this £2 million investment will be vital in supporting researchers to understand and treat those cancers with lower survival rates.

Doctor Megan Dowie, MRC Head of Molecular and Cellular Medicine:

We look forward to supporting the teams towards achieving real-world impacts, both in a clinical setting and the real hope they may ultimately be able to offer to those suffering from some of the most challenging cancer diagnoses.

We were inspired by the success of the sandpit event. The many new interdisciplinary connections formed over the two-days will have a lasting legacy of future collaboration of life and physical sciences researchers. This will help achieve the step change we need to address hard-to-treat cancers with potential for translation to other types of cancer too.

In August, the Technology Secretary visited University College London (UCL) where she announced £13 million for research that will deliver cutting-edge AI innovation in healthcare, with 22 winning university and NHS trust projects stretching from Edinburgh to Surrey to receive a share.

The boost will support everything from the development of a semi-autonomous surgical robotics platform for the removal of tumours, to the ability to predict the likelihood of a person’s future health problems based on their existing conditions – showcasing the real-world impact artificial intelligence is having.