NIHR | Manchester Biomedical Research Centre

Multimillion pound boost for Manchester scientists to detect cancer earlier

The University of Manchester sets bold research ambition to detect the (almost) undetectable as part of international alliance

Manchester scientists are set to benefit from a major cash injection from Cancer Research UK and partners to develop radical new strategies and technologies to detect cancer at its earliest stage.

The University of Manchester, part of NIHR Manchester BRC, will be a partner in a new transatlantic research alliance announced today to help more people beat cancer through early detection.

Cancer Research UK will invest up to £40 million over the next five years into the International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED).

ACED is a partnership between Cancer Research UK, Canary Center at Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) Knight Cancer Institute, University College London (UCL) and The University of Manchester. Contributions from the Alliance’s US partners will take potential investment to more than £55 million*.

By combining the ‘fire power’ of some of the leading research institutions in the world in early detection, ACED will accelerate breakthroughs, leading to quicker benefits for patients.

Our vision at Manchester is to make early detection a reality for all patients, giving them the best chance of surviving their cancer, or better yet, avoiding it altogether. The best way to do this is to focus the new targeted tests in high-risk populations.

A patient’s chance of surviving their disease improves dramatically when cancer is found and treated earlier.

Great strides have been made through existing screening programmes, such as for bowel, breast and cervical cancer, and increasing public awareness and GP urgent referral of patients with suspicious symptoms. However, for many cancer types no screening tools exist and new technologies for detecting cancer have been slow to emerge.

In Manchester**, the funding will support scientists and doctors to take forward new cancer screening projects in the city.

As part of the Alliance, researchers will continue to develop a range of ongoing community early detection projects – from lung health checks in car parks, to ‘pee in a pot’ tests for gynaecological cancers.

Other projects that will benefit from the Alliance are part of the Prevention and Early Detection research theme to drive early detection research from the lab to the clinic. These include work to deliver lung health checks for people who could be at risk of developing lung cancer in some of the city’s most deprived areas.

Another Manchester team is developing new biological models to identify how healthy breast tissue becomes cancerous. The hope is that this work could help to reduce overdiagnosis in people who are at low risk of developing breast cancer, by supporting scientists to better identify which changes identified in breast screenings could lead to cancer, and which won’t.

In Manchester, ACED will be co-directed by Professor Gareth Evans, BRC Cancer Prevention and Early Detection theme lead, and Professor Rob Bristow, Director of Manchester Cancer Research Centre.

Professor Bristow says the city is one of the best places in the world for early detection research because of its devolved healthcare system.

He said: “Manchester’s unique health system makes it easier and faster to involve patients in testing new cancer screening and early detection programmes, which could one day help us identify cancers before patients have symptoms.

“Our vision at Manchester is to make early detection a reality for all patients, giving them the best chance of surviving their cancer, or better yet, avoiding it altogether. The best way to do this is to focus the new targeted tests in high-risk populations.

“Additionally, cancer diagnoses must be made earlier as many patients suffer from multiple health conditions including diabetes and heart disease. If diagnosed at an earlier stage, you could improve cancer survival before other diseases limit treatment choice and the chance of cure.”

Understanding the biology of early cancers and pre-cancerous states will allow doctors to find accurate ways to spot the disease earlier and where necessary, treat it effectively. It could even enable ‘precision prevention’ – where the disease could be stopped from ever occurring in the first place.

UK statistics highlight the major improvements in survival that could be achieved.

Five-year survival for six different types of cancer is more than three times higher if the disease is diagnosed at stage one, when the tumour tends to be small and remains localised, compared with survival when diagnosed at stage four, when the cancer tends to be larger and has started to invade surrounding tissue and other organs***.

Advances in early detection technologies will help decrease late-stage diagnosis and increase the proportion of people diagnosed at an early and treatable stage, so a future for more patients can be secured.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said:

“Now is the time to be ambitious and develop effective ways to detect cancer earlier. It’s an area of research where we have the potential to completely change the future of cancer treatment, turning it into a manageable and beatable disease for more people.

“Real progress in early detection can’t be achieved by a single organisation. Benefits for patients will only be realised if early cancer detection leaders from around the world come together. No more siloes, no more missed opportunities; let us tackle this problem together and beat cancer.”

One in two people in the UK will be diagnosed with cancer at some stage in their lives but the good news is, thanks to research, more people are surviving the disease than ever before. Survival has doubled in the last 40 years in the UK and Cancer Research UK’s work has been at the heart of that progress.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said:

“Every two minutes, someone in the UK has their world turned upside down when they are diagnosed with cancer. Thanks to the pioneering work of UK researchers and our world-beating NHS, more people are surviving than ever.

“However, there is more to do to detect and cure this disease earlier. That is why I am pleased to welcome this new UK-US alliance, driven by Cancer Research UK.

“This is the transatlantic partnership at its very best. Our brilliant scientists will be able to work together to develop detection technologies and implement them in our health service, so we can find cancer earlier and ultimately save people’s lives.”

For more information on this type of research, visit our Cancer Prevention and Early Detection page.

* Cancer Research UK will invest up to £40 million in the next five years into the Alliance. Over the next five years Cancer Research UK is set to fund around £3 million per UK Member Centre to support their growth and up to £30 million to support collaborative research and infrastructure across the Alliance. Each US party will contribute up to $10 million to research projects and infrastructure. Taking the US contribution from the two partners to up to $20 million.

** ACED is a programme that fits within the Prevention and Early Detection research theme and is led by Professors Rob Bristow and Gareth Evans. This group draws on the research power of the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute and Centre, Manchester Cancer Research Centre, the University of Manchester, the Christie Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, Manchester NHS Foundation Trusts, the Manchester Centre for Cancer Biomarker Sciences, and the National Institute for Health Research Manchester Biomedical Research Centre.

*** Based on 5-year age-standardised net cancer survival in England of adults diagnosed between 2013 and 2017, followed up to 2018; cancer sites for persons: colorectal, kidney, lung. For women specifically: breast, uterine and ovary.