Here’s an update on our research project. Sorry it’s a bit tech but basically, it’s going really well!
“Tumours can release tumour cells into the bloodstream (circulating tumour cells or CTCs) and can shed small fragments of genetic material (cell-free DNA or cfDNA). The aim of our project is to establish and refine processes for extracting information from patients’ blood (contained within CTCs or cfDNA), which may inform treatment choices.
The majority of Year 1 tasks have been completed. The time-limiting part has been identifying optimal methods for collecting minute amounts of cfDNA. A process called ‘making a library’ which (like a real library) can be used repeatedly as reference material to answer many questions using next-generation sequencing (NGS). NGS is a high-throughput, low-cost way of finding out the sequence of many genes at the same time. We have selected a set of genes thought to be altered in patients with pancreatic cancer. To illustrate the speed of technology evolution, when this project was first conceived this list comprised some 20 genes, 6 months ago 100, and now comprises 600 genes which can now be examined.
Sample collection from patients with pancreatic cancer began in October 2014. Blood samples from 30 patients will be collected, so far 12 patients have been recruited. Sample collection is performed by the Christie/CR-UK BioBank, who will also source tumour tissue collected from patients who had an operation as part of their treatment. We intend to compare tumour DNA with cfDNA from blood from the same patients. This will take place in the next 6 months.
Next, patient recruitment will continue and data generation from patient samples will begin. NGS produces huge and complex data sets which will require skilled interpretation. Dr Crispin Miller (senior group leader, applied computational biology and bioinformatics department, CR-UK MI) will perform this analysis. Importantly, we have worked with this team recently with similar data, which has resulted in a highly prestigious publication in Nature Medicine.
Following this project, we hope to design a clinical trial where treatment options are personalised based on the types of blood tests developed here, with the intention of substantially improving survival outcomes for patients with pancreatic cancer.