UCL Cancer Institute


Launch of new clinical research facilities to advance cancer diagnostics and therapies at UCL/UCLH

16 June 2016

Cancer Genomics and Imaging Launch…


The final stages of an £8.9 million award to advance cancer medical research facilities at UCL/UCLH, were celebrated last night with a launch event marking the implementation of new cancer genomics and imaging technologies that will support two world-class cancer research programmes. The event, hosted at the UCL Cancer Institute, featured keynote speeches from Dr Jim Smith, MRC Deputy Chief Executive and Chief of Strategy and Professors Mark Emberton, Tim Meyer and Tariq Enver, who will be leading the research projects at UCLH and UCL.

The funding - part of the UK Government’s Clinical Research Infrastructure Initiative, led by the Medical Research Council (MRC) - was awarded to UCL to provide new technologies as part of two innovative clinical cancer research projects supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) University College London Hospitals Biomedical Research Centre (BRC):

1. A Theranostic Approach to Patients with Cancer - this novel programme led by Professor Mark Emberton (Dean, UCL Faculty of Medical Sciences, Professor of Interventional Oncology and Honorary Consultant Urologist, UCLH) and Dr Shonit Punwani (Reader in Magnetic Resonance and Cancer Imaging, UCL Centre for Medical Imaging & Consultant Radiologist, UCLH) aims to revolutionise diagnosis, risk stratification and therapy for people with cancer, based on innovations in MRI technology.

The clinical research group will be strengthening its already advanced imaging capabilities, through the addition of a new Spinlab Hyperpolariser from GE (with additional funding by the NIHR University College London Hospitals BRC) designed to work in conjunction with existing Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) equipment to provide non-invasive metabolic assessment of tumours; an in-bore MRI targeted ultrasound device for focal therapy of prostate cancer - the treatment itself is monitored in real time by MRI, thereby enabling more effective treatments and helping avoid potential treatment-related complications; and histopathology and genomics equipment, including high-speed FRET histology imaging - enabling improved characterisation of cancer from biopsies.

Professor Emberton said: “We are delighted that the grant has enabled us to buy a Spinlab Hyperpolariser which will help us look at real-time dynamic metabolic process in patients with cancer. The technology is very new and the work of UCL and UCLH will look at its development and validation through clinical trials. So, for the moment, the technology will only be available to patients on a clinical trial. Ultimately it will make diagnosis better and treatment choices easier.”

Dr Punwani said: “The end result may help in the early diagnosis and treatment of cancer by monitoring how metabolism is affected. Whilst first-in-man clinical trials are planned for this year, it will take a multi-disciplinary cross-institutional approach to research to develop the technology and techniques so that they are ready for routine clinical use. Our work is part of an MRC network with Nottingham, Cambridge and Oxford and apart from cancer, we are also collectively looking at the application of this technology in neurology and cardiac diseases.”

2. Single Cell Genomics  - headed by Professor Tariq Enver (Director, UCL Cancer Institute) with research led by Professor Tim Meyer (Professor of Experimental Cancer Medicine and Consultant in Medical Oncology). This dedicated facility has focused award funding on state-of-the-art equipment to enable researchers to study the molecular characteristics of single cells including Circulating Tumour Cells (CTC’s).

The facility will enable research groups to develop new methods of analysing single cells in patients who are undergoing treatment for cancer and help guide treatment decisions. The group will also study CTCs in order to better understand the way that cancer spreads through the body and results in metastases, which are responsible for the death of 90% patients with cancer.

“One of the characteristics of cancer is that it often spreads to other organs. A primary tumour can invade into the bloodstream and travel to other sites within the body and start to grow there. During that journey through the bloodstream, we have the opportunity to sample CTCs as they travel by taking a simple blood test and then isolating these cells.” explains Professor Meyer.

“Identifying CTCs is a challenge because these cells are very rare; there’s about one CTC to 10 million or more blood cells. However, with a number of new technologies now available to us, we can count, very accurately, how many tumour cells are circulating in a patient’s blood and that provides us with useful information about the prognosis or response to treatment’’

“CTCs not only provide an important tool to monitor cancers and predict treatment responses, but their potential as molecular markers offers exciting possibilities to guide therapy.” Professor Meyer continues. “Given that these cells are actually shed from the tumour, we assume that they are genetically representative of the tumour, and therefore represent a ‘liquid biopsy’, which is safer to perform and less invasive than a traditional tumour biopsy.  What we’re doing now in the lab is using the latest technologies to extract CTCs from patients’ blood samples and then isolate single cells for further analysis. We can identify mutations and study gene expression before and during treatment to understand how cancers evolve and develop resistance to therapy. In time, we hope to be able to use this information in the clinic to select the most effective treatment for each patient based on the molecular characteristics of their disease.

Lead image

Professor Mark Emberton (centre) with MRC deputy chief executive Dr Jim Smith (left) and Dr Jacky Pallas (right)

Further information


The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) University College London Hospitals Biomedical Research Centre is a partnership between University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and UCL, and is funded by the NIHR. The centre, set up in 2007, is at the forefront of research into major causes of illness and disease-related death and has already invested over £100m in research projects and infrastructure. Awarded a further £100m in government funding from the NIHR in 2011, the centre helps take innovations in basic science and turn them into therapies that directly benefit patients. In particular the centre supports experimental medicine research which tends to be ‘first in man’ studies such as research into new therapies and devices or the mechanisms of disease.

SPINlab hyperpolarizing system developed by GE spinoff, Research Circle Technology: An MRI system designed for use in research studies for rapid visualization of metabolism at the cellular level. Press release: Business Wire ‘GE Introduces SPINlab™*, Enabling Scientists to see Real-Time Cell Activity’.

TULSA-PRO™ System from Profound Medical Corp., and Philips.http://www.profoundmedical.com/tulsa/