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The Leedham Lab at the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics in the Nuffield Department of Medicine (NDM) has been awarded over £2m from Cancer Research UK to develop a new tool that could help guide how bowel cancer patients are treated in the future.

Bowel cancer is the fourth most common cancer in the UK with nearly 43,000 people diagnosed every year. 

'Our understanding of the biology of bowel cancer is really advancing very rapidly, and this has been helped by the ability to examine samples of tumours with a wide range of molecular tools,' explains Simon Leedham, Professor of Molecular and Population Genetics from the University of Oxford, and Honorary Consultant at the John Radcliffe Hospital.

Funding from Cancer Research UK has enabled the Leedham Lab to develop a brand-new molecular tool, which could lead to a step change in how to choose the best treatment for each patient at the right time.

Commenting on the tool, Prof Leedham added: 'We believe that part of the reason some therapies fail is because cancer cells have the capacity to change their behaviour when they are exposed to chemotherapy. Whilst some cells will be killed, other cells within the tumour survive and can change their behaviour and appearance - a leopard that can change its spots! This is known as cell plasticity. Currently the only tool we have to understand whether a tumour is responding to our treatments is using radiology scanning to look for whole tumour shrinkage. However, this isn’t able to identify changes that occur at a cellular level. We think we can use our new molecular tool to assess how different tumours respond to different chemotherapies and then use this measurement to help deliver more effective treatments in patients like Tammy.'

Tammy Holden-White was aged just 30 when she was given a diagnosis of stage 4 bowel cancer in 2018. Her son was seven months old when she was diagnosed. She has had major surgery, targeted treatments and has used her own experience as a patient in the hope of enriching and accelerating research. 

She said: 'For me a ‘bad tummy’ throughout my teens was eventually found to be Crohn’s disease, which attacked and damaged my cells and led to bowel cancer by the time I was 30. For patients, the lottery of whether your particular cancer will respond well to current treatments is stressful enough, and how long they will be effective and what might happen after that has so far been unknowable.'

Tammy is an advocate of patient consent for tissue use in research so that samples and data about a patient’s cancer can be shared among researchers, allowing the affected person to take a critical role in contributing to scientific discovery.

She added: 'Every cancer patient carries priceless information about how to tackle cancer. Each time we allow samples of our blood or tissue to be shared with researchers, we share the clues that will one day crack the enigma.'