Research study matches cancer patients to clinical trials by finding faulty genes

The Christie NHS Foundation Trust in Manchester is leading on a national research study which uses a simple blood test to match cancer patients with the right clinical trial for them.

The initiative, known as TARGET National, is funded by The Christie charity and Sir Bobby Robson Foundation, based in Newcastle, and supported by Roche UK. It will recruit 6,000 cancer patients from across the UK through 18 cancer centres in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

The study is open to cancer patients with solid tumours who have exhausted all other treatment options and considered by their oncologists to be suitable for early phase, experimental trials. 

Researchers will analyse the genetic characteristics of a patient’s cancer from a blood sample. They will look for any faulty genes that may help inform that individual’s suitability to receive an experimental treatment. Each cell in the body contains a copy of a person’s genetic code, made up of DNA. In cancer cells, the DNA is often faulty, and this allows the cells to grow out of control. Understanding these genetic faults may help a doctor select a specific experimental treatment within a clinical trial that aims to treat the fault. More and more, cancer treatments are moving away from chemotherapy to newer treatments that ‘target’ specific faults within cancer cells and which potentially cause fewer side effects on non-cancer cells. 

Because small amounts of DNA leak from the tumour into the blood stream a blood sample taken from the patient can be all that’s needed to find the genetic code of the tumour. 

Dr Matthew Krebs, consultant oncologist at The Christie NHS Foundation Trust, who is leading on the trial said: “The NHS is making great strides forward in offering genetic testing for cancer patients but at the moment this is restricted to patients with certain types of cancer and requires a biopsy sample for the testing.
"The TARGET National study will use a state-of-the art blood test, from Roche Foundation Medicine, to look for any genetic faults in the cancer. This will take us a step forward in learning more about the benefit of these blood tests for selecting treatment for cancer patients and we hope one day they could be available on the NHS if we can demonstrate the benefit.
“We can’t guarantee that we will find a fault in the genetic code of every cancer patient we recruit, or that if we do, there will be a suitable drug trial for them. However, as we learn more about the genetics of cancer in this study, it will help doctors and scientists develop new treatments to help people in the future. We also hope this study will increase the opportunity for patients to take part in clinical trials across the UK.”

Kelly Warrington, TARGET trial lead and Medical Affairs Partner in Personalised Healthcare and Genomics at Roche Products Ltd, added: “At Roche, we are committed to helping find ways to identify the right treatment for the right person at the right time. This study will be fundamental to identifying patients for novel treatments through a series of clinical trials that are coming to the UK in the next few months and years.”

David Kearney, a prostate cancer patient from Bury in Greater Manchester, who took part in the first phase of the TARGET trial at The Christie said: “Taking part in the TARGET trial helped me by enabling my doctors find the right clinical trials for me. I have now been on clinical trials for nearly two years, which has kept my cancer at bay, and I really hope many more people from across the UK will experience the same success by participating in this research study.” 

This study follows on from the success of the TARGET trial run in Manchester, and the PROSPECT-NE study run in Newcastle, that looked at matching patients to experimental trials based on analysis of the tumour genetics. TARGET National will take five years to complete.

Last updated: February 2022