Fighting cancer under one roof
30 October 2006
On 1 October, Professor Chris Boshoff (UCL Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research) officially became director of the UCL Cancer Institute, a state-of-the-art centre that will bring hundreds of the world's cancer experts under one roof in Huntley Street in 2007.
The phone rings off the hook during my interview with Professor Chris Boshoff (who is also Head of the Cancer Research UK Viral Oncology Group and cancer physician in the Head and Neck Cancer Unit at University College London Hospitals). There are questions to be answered about equipment, furniture and staff for the new UCL Cancer Institute, from leading researchers to the people who will keep it clean and tidy. It's a time-consuming business. The institute will eventually house 350 scientists, most of whom will be new recruits to UCL, and Professor Boshoff admits the planning in the final three months before the move is a challenge. So why has he signed up to such a daunting undertaking?
"One in every four people in the UK dies from cancer. Given the decline in heart disease, and the fact that more than three-quarters of people with cancer are over the age of 65, cancer will be the biggest killer in the UK in less than 20 years," Professor Boshoff states baldly. "Although there a number of cancer research institutes in the UK, this will be one of the few at the heart of a university, so we'll be able to use all the strengths that brings to fight cancer in a modern way," explains Professor Boshoff.
A major strength is the opportunity to forge intellectual interactions between different fields.
"Often in science, you make the biggest impact by breaking out of your tunnel vision," says Professor Boshoff. "We need to make links with the new UCL Institute for Healthy Ageing, for example. Studying DNA damage as cells age will give us insight into the mechanisms that cause cancer in the ageing population. We'll also be able to exchange ideas with top engineers, mathematicians and researchers at the London Centre for Nanotechnology, which opens in November."
"It is particularly helpful that the institute is at the heart of one of the largest and most productive biomedical faculties in Europe - our researchers will be able to collaborate on complex problems. For instance, interactions with UCL Developmental Biology will help cancer researchers and biologists share insights as to why and how genes involved in shaping the foetus sometimes switch on again in cancer cells, causing them to spread uncontrollably."
The institute sits plumb in the heart of Bloomsbury's research and care quarter. Rubbing shoulders with the new University College London Hospital and the planned Ambulatory Cancer Care Centre, and with three major teaching hospitals on its doorstep, researchers will have easy and close access to the wards. This will be a great help in speeding up the time it takes to turn laboratory breakthroughs into clinical trials, and ultimately treatments.
Apart from its advantageous location, a single research institute focusing on cancer will help put UCL's work in this field on the map.
"All the cutting-edge cancer research going on at UCL will be consolidated at the institute," Professor Boshoff says: "For the first time, the huge amount of research we publish will be under a single name, which will help the outside world appreciate the university's strength in cancer research."
Conducting research as one recognisable entity will also help on the financial front: it will build awareness of UCL's work, and is therefore likely to attract more funding from donors, charities and other research supporters.
It will also reduce costs. The advent of 'high-throughput' technologies in the past few years means that research that used to take several months can now be carried out in the space of a week. For example, gene expression microarrays allow researchers to study thousands of genes in one experiment and techniques such as ribonucleic acid interference (RNAi) are used to 'silence' the activity of genes within a cell. The necessary equipment underpinning modern cancer research is seriously expensive, but the researchers based at the institute will be able to share core facilities.
The sheer size of the institute (4,500 square metres of laboratory space over five floors) will allow UCL to house 350 scientists working on cancer - twice the current number. Professor Richard Begent (Head of UCL Oncology and Director of the Cancer Research UK Targeting and Imaging Research Group), Professor Ian Jacobs (Head of the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Institute for Women's Health and joint Head of the UCL Gynaecological Cancer Laboratory) and Professor David Linch (Head of Haematology) are just a few of UCL's leading lights who will be relocating to the institute from day one, convinced of the benefits that close cooperation will bring. Furthermore, a specialist PhD will be on offer at the institute, to train the next generation of scientific talent to take forward the fight against the disease.
The institute is an acknowledgement of the outstanding achievements of UCL scientists in cancer. Over the past two years alone, they have discovered how some cancers escape from children's immune systems. They have shown which drug is most effective in treating post-menopausal women with breast cancer, and have pinpointed which cells cause Kaposi's sarcoma, the most common cancer in people with HIV. They have devised a hypersensitive way of detecting mutations in cancer tissues to help determine the most successful treatments. They have developed a new method of making anti-cancer therapies that target specific cells, and defined novel ways of treating acute leukaemia. I could go on.
But Professor Boshoff is not satisfied with this roll-call. He believes UCL needs to look beyond geographical boundaries to expand our understanding of cancer.
"As a global university in one of the most ethnically diverse and cosmopolitan cities in the world, UCL must develop ties with international research groups - especially in the Far East, Middle East and developing countries - to deepen our knowledge of different types of the disease. For example, in the Far East, cancer of the head and neck, including tongue cancer, are common, while cancer of the liver and of the oesophagus are more prevalent in Africa. In the West, breast and colon cancer are much more common. We already have a good start - in my lab alone there are 18 scientists from 14 different countries."
He also believes that academics should be much more flexible about working with industry and the NHS, given the terrible statistics:
"Everyone has lost someone close to them through cancer. Nearly one in three of us will suffer from some form of cancer in our lives. We need to reach out to all types of organisations involved in fighting cancer and work together if we want to conquer this disease. UCL has made a £35million commitment to do just that, in the form of the new UCL Cancer Institute."
To find out more about the UCL Cancer Institute, contact Mark Lewis in UCL's Development and Corporate Communications Office.
Image 1: The UCL Cancer Institute front façade (virtual image)
Image 2: Three-quarters of people with cancer are over 65
Image 3: The institute is at the heart of Bloomsbury's research and care quarter
Image 4: Abnormal blood vessels providing nutrients and oxygen for a tumour (the dark area on the right). Targeting tumour blood vessels with new drugs could be a major new way to treat cancer