AstraZeneca scientists set to create ‘Google Earth’ of cancer tumours

AstraZeneca scientists Richard Goodwin and Simon Barry have been announced as members of one of the first global research teams to win Cancer Research UK’s Grand Challenge.

The multidisciplinary team aims to create a brand new way to map tumours – a ground-breaking project that has been made possible by one of the biggest funding grants ever awarded by Cancer Research UK.

The team is led by Dr Josephine Bunch of the National Physical Laboratory and includes UK- and US-based chemists, physicists and biologists from a range of organisations. Using their combined expertise, they aim to develop a reproducible, standardised way to fully map different tumours in unprecedented detail.

The research

The team will use a variety of new mass spectrometry imaging techniques and instruments they’ve developed to study individual breast, bowel and pancreatic tumours, cancers where they believe they can make the biggest difference.

From the whole tumour right down to the individual fats and proteins in cells (the metabolites), to the tumour microenvironment, they will map and visualise every bit of these tumours to create faithful 3D representations of them for the first time.

By doing this, they aim to create the equivalent of a ‘Google Earth’ that will allow you 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.

And they will map every detail of a series of tumours, zooming in from the whole tumour right down to the individual fats and molecules inside cells (metabolites), as well as studying the cells and molecules around the tumour.

They hope that by creating such detailed representations of these tumours, it will improve our understanding of cancer and allow us to identify new and better ways to diagnose and treat the disease.

The team will also create a database containing their data, which will be available to researchers around the globe, and strive to create a standardised way for other scientists and doctors to use these new techniques in their work and in the clinic to help them look at other cancers in the same way and speed up progress against the disease.

The impact

This team’s novel approach to studying and mapping the entire molecular make-up of tumours could lead to the development of new ways to diagnose and treat cancer. It could also help inform and improve the testing of existing treatments and potentially improve them. Ultimately, it could help more people survive cancer for longer.

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 these exceptional teams as they help us achieve our ambition.

Sir Harpal Kumar Chief Executive, Cancer Research UK

The Cancer Research UK Grand Challenge provides an exciting opportunity for us to bring together world-leading experts in cancer biology with innovators in mass spectrometry imaging techniques. We will use powerful technologies to explore the molecular landscape of samples, from the subcellular level right through to patients in surgery. We hope this will enable us to develop better drugs and target the right patients. AstraZeneca has been a key participants in designing the project and uniting our network of collaborators to form a truly innovative team.

Richard Goodwin Principal Scientist, Innovative Medicines Biotech Unit, AstraZeneca