Newswise — Queen’s University Belfast has been successful in a £4.6m tripartite grant award to tackle colorectal cancer. The prestigious US-Ireland partnership award provides a unique opportunity to bring together leading researchers from Queen’s University, the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) and GE Global Research Center in the US in an interdisciplinary programme of research to develop new approaches to diagnose and treat the deadly disease. 

Using Cell DIVE, the state-of-the-art tissue multiplexing technology developed by GE Global Research Center, and together with RCSI’s expertise in Systems Medicine, Queen’s researchers will comprehensively characterise the gene and protein interactions inside colorectal cancer cells and use this information to select or stratify patients for particular therapeutic interventions.

Dr Fiona Ginty from GE's Global Research Center said: “TheCell-DIVE technology that we have developed allows the examination of tumour tissue samples at a level of cellular detail that has not been possible before. Examining multiple proteins and different cell types in a single tissue sample allows us to define more clearly the biology that drives individual tumours. We are delighted to be working with researchers on the island of Ireland to apply this technology and know it will positively influence patient care.”

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer worldwide and it is predicted that the number of cases will rise to 2.4 million diagnosed per year by 2035. There are a number of treatment options available to colorectal cancer patients and a patient’s response to treatment will depend on the specific type or makeup of the cancer. As a ‘one-size-fits-all’ treatment approach does not work for all patients, a more precise understanding of what happens inside colorectal cancer cells is required. This study will involve the examination of thousands of tumour samples in a bid to develop a diagnostic test that will enable more precise treatment plans for individual patients.

Professor Mark Lawler, Chair in Translational Genomics at Queen’s University explains: “Inside the colorectal cancer cell is like a massive series of circuits that are switched on all the time, but different subsets of patients have subtle changes in their circuitry. The Cell DIVE technology is essentially like a highly sophisticated 'molecular camera,' allowing us to take multiple 'snapshots' inside the colorectal cancer cell, defining a particular circuitry (a molecular signature) that identifies the patient’s colorectal cancer subtype. This will allow us to match the right patient to the right treatment.”

RCSI’s Professor of Systems Medicine Jochen Prehn added: “This collaborative programme of research shows how a comprehensive knowledge of the tumour, generated through an interdisciplinary systems medicine approach can not only give us precise insights into the complex biology of cancer, but also allow us to develop new diagnostic and prognostic tools.”

The research could also lead to improvements in treatment for colorectal cancer, namely immunotherapy, a powerful new approach that has shown to be effective in treating a number of other cancers. Professor Dan Longley from Queen’s University explains: “Being able to analyse particular cell types, for example immune cells in tumour tissues, could pave the way for immunotherapy for this type of cancer which could have long-lasting benefits for colorectal cancer patients. Although we are focussed on colorectal cancer, this technology can be applied to any cancer.”

The project is funded by the US National Institutes of Health, the Health and Social Care Research and Development (HSC R&D) Division of the Public Health Agency Northern Ireland/Medical Research Council and the Science Foundation Ireland/The Health Research Board of Ireland.

Professor Ian Young, Director of HSC R&D said: “The HSC R&D Division in the Public Health Agency, with support from the Medical Research Council is pleased to be funding this high quality research study. We expect that the outcomes from this international research will lead to significant advances in the treatment of patients with colorectal cancer in the UK, Ireland and globally.”