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Durham Business & Innovation Services

News & Press Cuttings

North Universities Join Forces for Cancer Research

(3 November 2011)

Vice Chancellors from Durham & Newcastle Universities

Two of the country's top universities have come together to take significant new scientific breakthroughs into the marketplace. James Marley finds out more about the work of the Angel Alliance in turning the research into commercial reality.

WE ALL know someone who has undergone a bout of chemotherapy. Around a third of those undergoing treatment will have been given platinum-containing drugs. They destroy cancerous cells but platinum is toxic, and in large enough quantities, can be dangerous.

It is a delicate balance between the amount of the drug needed to kill tumours and the levels at which a patient is put at risk.

Prof Peter Cumpson at Newcastle University is leading a team working with researchers at the Northern Institute for Cancer Research (NICR) developing a device to measure the levels of platinum in the blood.

Ultimately, a handheld device could be located at each cancer centre in the country. This would mean more people would receive monitoring than is currently possible. And that would mean more effective doses and potentially more effective cancer treatment.

Prof Cumpson is a surface analyst, or as he puts it: “Essentially I measure things.”

And during a conversation with colleagues at the university’s medical school he realised his expertise could make a difference to the way cancer patients are treated.

He says: “I was talking to some people at the medical school and asked if there was anything they needed to measure. To my surprise they said platinum in blood. Why would there be platinum in blood? I didn’t know. I found out a third of people receiving chemo will be getting platinum-based drugs.

“What we needed was a cheap and quick method of reporting back the level of platinum in the blood,” he says.

“At the moment all cancer centres in the UK send samples to Newcastle for measurement. Then the results are sent back the next day. What we need is a handheld device in every cancer centre. This means the treatment could have the maximum possible effect.”

Renal function is vital to the process of getting the toxicity out of the body. And that means people with poor kidneys need to be measured and monitored very carefully. In many cases these are young children.

Prof Cumpson adds: “With my background as a physicist, it is not often I get to help children with cancer. And often it is small children with poor kidney function who can benefit most from this.

“We are working with a couple of local companies in Gateshead and Redcar who are supplying different bits of kit.”

Dr Gareth Veal from the Northern Institute of Cancer Research said: “What we do is measure the exposure of patients to cancer drugs. What we mean by exposure is the amount circulating in the bloodstream.

“The balance is getting enough of the platinum drugs to the tumour cells without too much toxicity to the patient.

“Clinicians will have more confidence in the doses to give. This could be knowing when to stop to prevent toxicity. But it maybe that the patients get the benefit of receiving a higher dose to treat the cancer more effectively.”

This collaboration is just one of a number of groundbreaking projects at Durham and Newcastle Universities attracting investment to commercialise academic research.

The work being carried out doesn’t fit with the traditional image of the dusty world of academia. It is cutting-edge technology with the potential to change lives.

And with commercial partners, the research is being brought into the market place. That work is being carried out by teams at Durham and Newcastle universities.

But to get to this stage the two institutions have had to collaborate in a groundbreaking partnership.

In the past, they may have been rivals for the same research grants and funding.

But in 2008 Durham and Newcastle joined forces to establish the Angel Alliance. It is all about combining research and resources into commercial success.

The partnership helps attract investment to commercialise academic research. Both universities have long-standing success at creating spin-out companies which are promising to be significant in the future growth and standing of the region’s economy.

There has been considerable success in securing major grants from central Government and national research centres to further important work in a range of scientific disciplines.

The Angel Alliance was first formed as a partnership between Durham University, Newcastle University and regional development agency One North East.

With One North East due to shut in March 2012, both universities are committed to continuing the Angel Alliance with several funding bids already in progress to further specific joint research projects.

The partnership has already secured funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to explore a range of projects including: tackling bacterial infections on medical devices, understanding the reasons for artificial knee joint failures and exploring a new approach to leukaemia drug delivery.

In addition, the Angel Alliance has secured a £2.2m grant from Cancer Research UK and a number of other medical research councils to develop imaging biomarkers for targeted cancer therapy.

Durham and Newcastle universities are part of the N8 Research Partnership of the North’s leading universities.

Professor Chris Brink, vice- chancellor of Newcastle University, explains: “Individually, Newcastle and Durham universities have complementary research strengths which we have been able to build on through Angel Alliance in order to leverage significant additional resources to the region.

“Our effective collaboration over the past three years has helped present a powerful case to funding bodies and allowed us to make some important advances in a number of areas of research.”

Another of the projects that has come from the alliance could bring relief to thousands suffering from toothache.

The early stages of tooth decay can be halted and even reversed without the need for drills and fillings but detection is the problem at the early and easily treatable stage the decay doesn’t tend to show up on X-rays. Once it is visible on X-ray it is usually too late for non-invasive treatments.

But infrared light can pick out the problem. Scientists at Durham University are working with dentists to find ways to apply this laboratory finding in clinical settings.

A prototype has been developed which will allow dentists to stop problems earlier and hopefully mean less need to drills for those sitting in the chair. It also saves time and money for dentists and the NHS.

Part of the Angel Alliance is the Knowledge Transfer Account. This takes research from the universities and commercialises them in the healthcare sector.

The project works with NHS Trusts to translate the engineering and physical science research results into something that can be exploited by the healthcare industry.

Brian Tanner, dean of knowledge transfer at Durham University, says: “What we have tried to do is fund reasonably early-stage projects. Traditionally there have been barriers between hard scientists, if you like, and clinicians. There has never really been that link. We are crossing the clinical boundary.

“A shoulder prosthesis we have developed is now in people developed with commercial partners JRI.

“We are taking these gadgets from the engineering and physical science departments into the healthcare sector using clinicians.

“We may have competed. But collaboration between Durham and Newcastle is nothing new. The business development managers work across both universities. Half the week is at Newcastle and half at Durham. They have really been accepted by both as insiders working for the benefit of both.

“There has been a change in perception about commercialising research ideas. It is certainly something I have done throughout my career.”

Last year, the Angel Alliance also contributed to securing £9m in funding from the Economic and Social Research Council to strengthen research in social science subjects and establish a Durham and Newcastle doctoral training centre.

Professor Chris Higgins, vice- chancellor of Durham University, said: “Durham and Newcastle universities are two of the biggest contributors to the economy of the region and have complementary strengths in research and teaching.

“By working together in specific areas, as for example our innovative collaboration in medicine, we can maximise the impact we have on the economy and well-being of the region and the UK.”

View this article at the Journal