Pioneering personalised medicine in the Paterson

Dr Sara Valpione is a consultant at The Christie, after first coming to Manchester as a clinical research fellow. Here, she talks about how scientists at the Paterson Building are using biomarkers – genes, proteins and other molecules – to pioneer kinder and more personalised treatments for cancer. She also talks about how the Cancer Research UK National Biomarker Centre, also based in the Paterson, is helping to accelerate this important work.

A photo of Dr Sara Valpione, a consultant at The Christie, wearing a white coat and rubber gloves and standing in front of a centrifuge.

Optimising targeted medicine is the future of cancer research. In an ideal world, every single patient would have a treatment plan that is tailored to the specific characteristics of their tumour.

Although we’re not completely there yet, we’ve made massive progress. The targeted and immunotherapy treatments we’re able to offer patients lead to better outcomes, improved quality of life and fewer side effects than standard chemotherapy designed to treat a broad range of cancers.

Cancer biomarkers are key to helping us personalise treatments. The term ‘cancer biomarkers’ really implies a test that can be carried out in a variety of clinical specimens, including liquid biopsies e.g., in blood or urine, or in a biopsy of the tumour itself.

These tests assess the genes, proteins and other molecules that tell us about each person’s cancer and how it is behaving and responding (or not responding) to treatment. Our researchers use biomarkers to do everything from identifying a person’s tumour type to predicting when an evolving tumour might be becoming resistant to one treatment type and needs a new one.

The more informative biomarkers we can use, the more personalised the treatment pathways become, and the better the outcomes for patients.

Work in this area has just received a boost as the Cancer Research UK National Biomarker Centre (NBC) is now located on the third floor of the new Paterson Building at The Christie.

The Paterson is part of the Manchester Cancer Research Centre, a partnership between The Christie, The University of Manchester and Cancer Research UK.

Professor Caroline Dive CBE heads up the team there and is one of the world’s leading biomarker experts. The building is directly attached to the hospital, meaning that patients’ samples can get to the laboratories for analysis within minutes.

The team at the NBC pioneers the use of blood tests - instead of invasive tumour biopsies – to look for biomarkers. The NBC is one of the leading specialised biomarker centres in the world, analysing the best samples from across the country and beyond.

How I’m using biomarkers in my work

Together with the team at the NBC, I’m working on improving biomarker tests for upper gastrointestinal cancers, including stomach and oesophageal cancers.

At the moment, there is no standard test for these cancers, so we’re trying to work out the best technique for detecting DNA – the fingerprint of the cancer in the blood.

By getting this right, we will be able to diagnose someone quicker and with more accuracy. And the faster we can do this, the quicker we can get someone on to a treatment that will work for them.

Manchester has one of the highest incidences of oesophageal cancer anywhere in Europe, so the fact this research is happening here at the Paterson is helping to address a big clinical need in our own city.

Cancer research is a big team effort, where each team member plays a different role and has complementary knowledge. In addition to Caroline Dive and the biomarker team, I work with pathologists and data scientists, amongst others. Being together in our new building that’s been designed for collaboration makes working together so much easier.

My work is just one example of how we’re harnessing the power of biomarker testing to improve patient outcomes. You can find out more on the Manchester Cancer Research Centre website.

Last updated: April 2024