There is absolutely no doubt that research is expensive. In my last post I talked about investing £10m into the UK’s first Movember Centres of Excellence, and what hope this should bring to men with prostate cancer.
But I think an important message we might have missed in all of this is that you don’t always have to spend lots to spend big.
Here are three very different examples of how a small investment in research can eventually make a big difference to men with prostate cancer.
1. Funding completely new avenues of investigation
Last year, with the support of The Movember Foundation, Prostate Cancer UK gave a pilot award of £50,000 to Dr Sophie Papa at King’s College London.
Dr Papa’s project is to find an effective way of directing the body’s own immune cells to kill prostate cancer.
Researchers have started to make huge leaps forward with this type of treatment, known as immunotherapy, for blood cancers where the cancer cells move freely through the blood vessels. But it is much harder to apply to solid tumours like prostate cancer. This is because solid tumours are very good at making the area around them hostile to immune system cells, so that they don’t work properly near the tumour, and can’t kill it.
Dr Papa is trying to overcome these problems by modifying cells in the immune system to first help ‘point them’ at the prostate cancer cells, so that they know where in the body to go, and secondly to find a way to help them survive in the tumour environment.
She’s already made great progress in developing a mouse model – an unavoidable early step in designing a new therapy – and, on the strength of the work carried out from our funding, Dr Papa has recently been awarded an MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship. This is a bigger grant, worth more money, which will allow her to build up her research group and progress her prostate cancer research into a clinical trial within the next four years. I asked Dr Papa how the pilot award helped her gain further funding.
‘The pilot award allowed me to employ a research assistant and it was truly amazing how much more progress we made when there were two of us thinking about the problem in slightly different ways. I’ve recently been awarded a grant from the MRC to build up this research over the next four years and to take it into a clinical trial. There’s still a long way to go, but we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to overcome any obstacles, and establish immunotherapy as a viable treatment option for men with prostate cancer. Without the pilot award from Prostate Cancer UK, I definitely wouldn’t have been in a position to get the MRC Clinician Scientist Fellowship yet.’
2. Contributing to an early-stage clinical trial
Another good example is a small award of £47,700 that we awarded to Dr Peter Hoskin at the Mount Vernon Hospital in 2003.
This funding was to investigate using high dose rate brachytherapy, also know as temporary brachytherapy, together with external beam radiotherapy to treat localised prostate cancer. This award, which funded half of an early stage clinical trial for this treatment, contributed to a body of research showing that high dose rate brachytherapy and external beam radiotherapy is a safe and effective treatment combination for tumours that are contained within the prostate.
In 2005, Dr Hoskin was one of the experts consulted by NICE, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence, when they put together their guidance saying that this treatment combination works well enough, and is safe enough, to be offered as a standard therapy option for localised prostate cancer. Have a look at the information pages on our website to find out more about this type of treatment.
3. Funding a conversation
Our third example is a completely different way that a small investment can have a big impact.
Every two years since 1994, we’ve funded a conference called The Forum, where leading prostate cancer clinicians and scientists from around the world get together and spend three days discussing the problems facing men with prostate cancer, and possible ways to overcome them.
At one of these events in 2008, Professor Mark Emberton and Dr Chris Parker were talking about the problems associated with biopsies – the fact that they can cause pain and sometimes even infection – and the difficulties associated with diagnosing prostate cancer even after a biopsy. Sometimes the biopsy might miss the cancer, or underestimate how serious it is.
During the course of this discussion, they talked about whether magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI, could be used to get a detailed enough picture of the prostate to either show whether or not men might safely avoid a biopsy if the MRI scan looked cancer-free, or to help do more accurate biopsies for men whose scan did show a potentially cancerous area.
The work that followed on from this discussion resulted in the launch of a large-scale clinical trial in March 2012, called the PROMIS trial. This is due to finish next year and looks likely to tell us whether having an MRI scan could avoid the need for biopsy in many cases, and improve the accuracy of the biopsy in others.
Our next forum is coming up in June and we look forward to seeing what ideas will come out of that.
These examples really do prove the truth of the old saying ‘every penny counts’. When it comes to research, it isn’t just how much you spend, but also where you spend it that makes the difference. You can find out more about how we decide what type of research to fund in our research strategy, or on our research webpages.