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Cutting cancer through collaboration

Professor Paul A. Townsend is an academic entrepreneur with a unique position at the interface of research and industry. An internationally-renowned researcher in molecular and cellular biology, and Associate Dean for Business Engagement in Manchester’s Faculty of Biology, Medicine and Health, Paul outlines what he considers will be the focus for future innovation in both sectors.

Cancer is going to become a disease that we learn to live with rather than necessarily cure.

I hope we will be able to live with cancer as a chronic disease rather than it killing us as a huge, scary acute one, which is what we’ve known for many years. We’re going to need healthier living and healthier aging to help us control cancer. As a research community we need to ask ourselves: how can we manage cancer? How can we live with it better? What medicines do we need? How do we stratify and diagnose patients to fit into different treatment groups?

There is a massive opportunity for us but we can’t do this all by ourselves, which is where working and partnering with industry comes to the fore.

Business engagement and entrepreneurism play a crucial role in our research community. They will increasingly do so if we’re to realise the immense opportunities that are afforded to us over the next decade by the growth of artificial intelligence (AI) and new discoveries in the role of immuno-oncology, immunology and inflammation. These are areas in which we can make a huge difference. As one example, we could semi-automate pathology screening to both save money and help to improve accuracy.

The opportunities created by working across disciplines are multiple, but bring challenges in equal measure. The worlds of mathematics, engineering, computer science and AI are going to be huge in helping to personalise treatments, stratify populations and diagnose cancer. Despite these being relatively new areas, at Manchester we are already working with world-leading health data scientists at the Health eResearch Centre and the Farr Institute to understand how we can use these techniques for patient benefit.

“The worlds of mathematics, engineering, computer science and AI are going to be huge in helping to personalise treatments.”

Making sense of data

While this data generation provides information and patterns that are undoubtedly transforming our knowledge of cancer, there is so much of it that there’s a collective cry of what do we do with it all? How can we make sense of the data chaos? We need to look directly in to that chaos, listen to all that noise in order to draw out the important patterns within. Industry comes to us because we have so much chaotic data at our hands and they know that we can see the patterns in it.

Our expertise in reading the data is allowing us to stratify and personalise treatment, making it more accurate, more efficient and more cost effective.

Statistics for early death rates in Manchester compared to the rest of the UK are shocking. The likelihood of a male reaching 75 years old here is nearly 20% lower than some other parts of the UK. This needs to change but unfortunately, in the past, getting health messages out into some of Manchester’s complex communities has been difficult. We’ve only found out about cancer when it’s too late, generally when people present with chronic illness. However, there’s an education, an undertaking, that’s happening right now which we hope will result in an improvement in those statistics. The way to do that is by education and engagement and the patient working alongside us in their healthcare pathway.

We may be doing the world’s best science but if communities don’t know about it, then they’re not going to take the learning on board and we might not get there until it’s too late. So we must develop the science, use that science, and engage the patient to help improve their health outcomes – and do it all in Manchester. I think that’s highly achievable, under the ‘One Manchester’ and Health Innovation Manchester umbrella. That’s one of the reasons that I came here and one of the reasons the UK government has given Manchester a devolved health and social care budget.

Having it all

Being the biggest doesn’t always equate with being the best, but for us it does. Our centres of excellence in different cancer disease areas including prostate, melanoma, lung and breast, all attest to this.

As a collective research centre we can respond quickly and flexibly. That’s the Manchester approach. It means we can become the first adopters and first to develop new treatments, taking laboratory science to the patient as quickly as possible; from bench to bedside and back again.

Working with The Christie is incredibly rewarding, it’s part of the NHS and is patient care focused. That’s a very different approach to business and industry.

Our ‘One Manchester cancer’ approach allows us to be patient focused, undertaking fundamental translation research and looking after patients, but bringing external companies with cost-focused expertise into that ecosystem.
Nobody can do what we do in terms of rapid recruitment to trials or experimental medicines initiatives. We’ve got the largest Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) outside of the south of England, with a specialist theme in cancer, and the excellence of our business engagement strategy and portfolio was recognised by the National Institute for Health Research. This is one of the reasons that we can work with our industrial partners to translate our cancer research into help for patients quickly and effectively.

Uniquely placed

We have Europe’s biggest cancer hospital, we’re home to the largest number of clinical trials annually, the largest number of spin-out companies and we have input from and access to expertise and facilities at a world-leading university.

Bringing together funders, discipline experts, government, international industry, and, most importantly, our patients and the community, is critical. In my view this is the unique offering of the Manchester BRC, Health Innovation Manchester and the ‘Devo Manc’ ecosystem. This collective environment is the future for cancer research and industry, a future we’ve shown we can deliver and that’s what we’ll continue to do as we face the next chapter of challenges.

Manchester’s collaborative academic and industry approach to innovation is helping to improve cancer outcomes.