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Major bone cancer treatment breakthrough from UEA researcher

New hope for future bone cancer treatment as researchers take the first step in preventing the spread of cancer. Recent research into osteosarcoma led by Dr Darrell Green from UEA Norwich Medical School and Dr Katie Finegan from the University of Manchester has been hallmarked as the first major finding in bone cancer for forty years. 

A vast proportion of cancer research often focuses on cancer development, due to the obtainability of primary tumours via surgery. However, the current study took a different approach utilising both patient material and mouse models to study the deadly process of cancer spread. Currently, bone cancer treatment entails a debilitating combination of surgery and chemotherapy. However, from these findings it is now hoped that a more “kinder” treatment could be administered in the next five to seven years.

New technology and methods were utilised to isolate cancer cells in the blood that have metastasised from the primary tumour. Dr Green explained that finding the cancer cells in the blood “really wasn’t an easy process at all, as most cancers you hear about like lung, breast and prostate have very different biology than the types of cancers bone cancers form”. As a result, it took at least a year to fathom the nature of this type of cancer as procedures such as antibody capture provided limited information in this case. 

Dr Green and Dr Finegan’s research identifies a set of key genes that drive the metastasis of bone cancer to the lungs. Genetic profiling of circulating tumour cells highlighted the gene MMP9 as a participant in cancer spread. Further analysis found that the upstream MAPK7 gene was a master regulator of many genes including MMP9. Additionally, the MAPK7 gene had the ability to ‘hijack’ anti-tumour  M1 macrophage immune cells and turn them into pro-metastatic M2 macrophage immune cells. Tumour cells lacking MAPK7 displayed a drastic reduction in cancer growth and the absence of cancer spread, once implemented into mouse models.

Dr Darrell Green was inspired to study bone cancer after his childhood best friend Ben Morley was ill with the disease. He stated that over the course of his work he observed that “bone cancer was pretty much in the dark ages as far as cancer research and treatment progress, and it was my mission when I set out to do something about that”. Whilst being elated by the first step in the right direction, Dr Green still remains determined for progress to continue, “I don’t want to see a five year survival rate at 42%, I want to get it as close to 100% as possible and then I will feel like I’ve done my job”.

The fight for a treatment comes with its own emotional challenges, Sophie Taylor, a five-year-old girl who donated tissue to the study sadly passed away from bone cancer in January 2019. Darrell states “It’s extremely difficult emotionally to become really close to a child and her family and not be able to do more for them”. 

Funding bone cancer research is a major obstacle, the rarity of the disease often manifests in pharmaceutical companies refusing to invest as financial return is low. Therefore, research like this is reliant on funding from small charities such as The Big C, The Bone Cancer Research Trust and The Humane Research Trust. Dr Green emphasised that “when you donate to smaller charities most of your money is spent on research and because it’s in the local area you do physically see where your money has gone. I hope that anybody that has funded those charities in the past can now see the paper and see that’s exactly what your money paid for.”

Funding for this research has been built up from a number of charities in the local area and beyond. Whilst an individual may not see where their donation has helped, research such as this shows where donations aid. The Big C has raised over £32 million which funds surgical and diagnostic equipment for hospitals in Norfolk and Waveney as well as supporting cancer research undertaken at the Norwich Research Park. The Paget’s Association funds research at Norwich Medical School in the aim of improving molecular testing and diagnosis of the rare cancer, Paget’s associated osteosarcoma. Friends of Rosie Children’s Cancer Research Fund values innovative research that they believe will make a difference to the harsh treatment options that are currently available for children’s cancers. The Humane Research Trust invests money raised by the charity into medical research that undergoes alternatives to animal methodologies. The Bone Cancer Research Trust helps to implement funding to all forms of primary bone cancer with the hope that one day a cure will be found.

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Emily Hawkes

May 2021
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