Manchester Scientists Lead The Way In Next Generation Radiotherapy Research

Manchester scientists and clinicians have been awarded a major cash boost from Cancer Research UK to pioneer new radiotherapy technologies and techniques that could help more people survive cancer in the future.

Experts from the Cancer Research UK Manchester Centre* are set to receive £16.5 million over the next five years to develop new state of the art radiotherapy treatments to be delivered at the world-renowned Christie NHS Foundation Trust.

Manchester has been chosen to be one of just seven centres of excellence** in a UK-wide network that will accelerate advances in radiotherapy research. The Manchester centre has been awarded Radiation Research Unit status***, with funding for both research groups and infrastructure.

Cancer Research UK is investing a total of £56 million**** in Cancer Research UK RadNet – the charity’s largest ever investment in radiotherapy research.

In collaboration with The Christie, the funding will support University of Manchester researchers to use advanced radiotherapy technologies such as proton beam therapy, MR-Linac machines which combine an MRI scanner with a radiotherapy machine to make treatment more precise, and FLASH radiotherapy which delivers ultrahigh radiation doses in fractions of a second.

Scientists and doctors will also work to personalise radiotherapy in combination with new treatments. For example, one of the aims is to identify new biomarkers that can be used to predict how patients will benefit from having immunotherapy with radiotherapy.

Professor Rob Bristow, Director of the Manchester Cancer Research Centre and Chief Academic Officer at The Christie, is lead researcher for the centre which could help to save the lives of more people with cancer in the city – and across the UK – in the future.

He said: “We are very proud that Manchester has been awarded this grant to bring the next generation of radiotherapy treatments to patients sooner. The funding will support us to develop new radiotherapy technologies to help more people survive cancer, with fewer side effects and a better quality of life after treatment.

“Our work will look at how the latest technologies can work in tandem with other therapies, including immunotherapy. In addition, by identifying the biological indicators of cancer success or failure, we hope to increase personalised treatment to patients. In Manchester, many of our patients have pre-existing medical conditions and our unique programme of research will help us to decide on the most suitable treatment for them.

“We will also be delving further into the underlying biology of the tumour to find ways of preventing tumours from spreading and how to reduce the side-effects of treatment. All of this is only possible with the infrastructure and expertise we have on hand here in Manchester."

Cancer Research UK and the Christie supported some of the earliest research into the treatment of cancer with radiation and pioneered the first use of radiotherapy in the 1920s. In its simplest form, this treatment works by blasting tumours with x-ray radiation, killing cancer cells by irreversibly damaging their DNA. Today, over 130,000 patients are treated with radiotherapy on the NHS every year.

Michael and Ruth Brierley, from Blackpool, Lancashire, know all too well why radiotherapy research is so important. Their daughter, Skye, was diagnosed with a rare and inoperable brain tumour at the age of 4 – and treated with pioneering proton beam therapy.

In December 2017, the couple booked a doctor’s appointment after noticing their daughter’s left eye turn completely inward. Just days later, the now six-year-old was diagnosed with an inoperable, fist-sized tumour behind her nose and eye.

Because doctors couldn’t perform surgery on the rare cancer, called rhabdomyosarcoma, Skye was sent to Florida for proton beam treatment – an advanced form of radiotherapy that targets certain tumours more precisely than previous treatments, increasing success rates and reducing side-effects. It allows high-energy protons to be targeted directly at a tumour, reducing the dose to surrounding tissues and organs.

The family spent nine weeks in the U.S. and Skye had 31 rounds of treatment.  Each treatment required her to wear a mask to direct the proton beams as accurately as possible to her tumour.

At the time, proton beam therapy was not available in the UK.

Two years on and thanks to treatment, Skye’s cancer is now stable. She has returned to school and is enjoying life with siblings Kira, 15 and Damien,11. She has regular check-ups in Manchester to monitor her health.

The Brierley family are delighted that such significant funding is being awarded by Cancer Research UK into the development of advanced radiotherapy techniques, which helped to save their daughter’s life.

Dad Michael said: “Skye is living proof of how effective proton therapy treatment can be. You don’t expect to be told your child has cancer – it was devastating for all the family. Thanks to pioneering treatment and advances in science, Skye is now doing really well. But without the scientific research that developed proton beam therapy, things could have turned out very differently.”

He added: “We are very pleased that funding is going into radiotherapy research just down the road in Manchester. We are extremely grateful to scientists here in the North West, who are developing cutting-edge treatments that will go on to save the lives of more people like Skye.”

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “Radiotherapy is a cornerstone of cancer medicine, with around 3 in 10 patients receiving it as part of their treatment. The launch of our network marks a new era of radiotherapy research in the UK. Scientists will combine advances in our understanding of cancer biology with cutting-edge technology to make this treatment more precise and effective than ever before”.

In Manchester, The Christie NHS Foundation Trust has a rich heritage of radiotherapy breakthroughs including use of X-rays for therapy in 1901, use of radium for therapy in 1905, development of the first international standard for radium treatment known as the “Manchester Method” in 1932 and the site of the world’s first clinical use of image guided radiotherapy in 2002. The hospital is also home to the UK’s first high energy NHS proton beam therapy centre which opened in Autumn 2018, almost 100 years after the proton was discovered in Manchester by Rutherford and his team.

The ‘RadNet’ funding coincides with the launch of Cancer Research UK’s ‘Right Now’ campaign which highlights both the reality of experiences like Skye’s, and the positive impact that research and better treatments – like those supported through the ‘RadNet’ programme – can have on people’s lives.

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.

Anna Taylor, Cancer Research UK media spokesperson, said: “This award is fantastic recognition of the world leading radiotherapy research taking place in the North West, which will help shape a better future for people with cancer through new technologies and treatments.

“People in the region have every right to feel proud of the ground-breaking research being carried out on their doorstep and of their fundraising efforts, which are helping to beat the disease.”

She continued: “Every hour, around five people are diagnosed with cancer in North West******. That’s why we’re working every day to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease. But we can’t do it alone. 

“Our ‘Right Now’ campaign aims to show how actions taken right now can make a real difference in helping more people like Skye survive.

“We are so grateful to her for sharing her cancer journey and we hope people in the North West will be moved to show their support, whether it’s joining a Race for Life event, volunteering in our shops or making a donation. Together, we will beat cancer.”

Notes to editors:

* The Cancer Research UK Manchester Centre is a partnership between the University of Manchester, The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, Cancer Research UK and Manchester Cancer Research Centre.

** RadNet will unite seven centres of excellence across the country: the Universities of Cambridge, Glasgow, Leeds, Manchester and Oxford, the Cancer Research UK City of London Centre (a partnership between Queen Mary University of London, University College London, Kings College London and the Francis Crick Institute) and the Institute of Cancer Research in partnership with the Royal Marsden Hospital, London.

*** The Universities of Manchester and Cambridge and the CRUK City of London Centre have been awarded Radiation Research Unit status, receiving funding for infrastructure and research programmes. The Universities of Glasgow, Leeds and Oxford and the ICR have been award Radiation Research Centre status, receiving funding for infrastructure.

**** Over five years

***** Born after 1960

****** Based on the average annual number of new cases of cancer (ICD10 C00-C97 excl. C44) diagnosed in the North West of England between 2014-2016.

Last updated: November 2019