UCL School of Life and Medical Sciences


Detecting the (almost) undetectable: new cancer alliance

21 October 2019

UCL research teams are part of a new transatlantic research alliance to develop radical new strategies and technologies to detect cancer at its earliest stage.


Cancer Research UK is the lead funder of the International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED), a £55m investment bringing together UCL, Canary Center at Stanford University, the University of Cambridge, the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, and the University of Manchester.

Early detection is essential to help more people beat cancer – a patient’s chance of surviving their disease improves dramatically when cancer is found and treated earlier.

Understanding the biology of early cancers and pre-cancerous states will allow doctors to find accurate ways to spot the disease earlier and where necessary treat it effectively. It could even enable ‘precision prevention’ – where the disease could be stopped from ever occurring in the first place.

Five-year survival for six different types of cancer is more than three times higher if the disease is diagnosed at stage one, when the tumour tends to be small and remains localised, compared with survival when diagnosed at stage four, when the cancer tends to be larger and has started to invade surrounding tissue and other organs.

The UCL ACED centre is led by Professor Mark Emberton (Dean, UCL Faculty of Medical Sciences) and hosts 24 co-investigators across UCL and partner NHS trusts, with access to over 200,000 patients for clinical trials.

Scientists will drive research to integrate modern imaging techniques with non-imaging biomarkers such as blood and urine tests. For example, an ongoing project called Re-IMAGINE, combines information from MRIs with urine tests to improve the detection of prostate cancer. Combining information in this way could make diagnosis and prognosis much more accurate.

Professor Emberton said: “We desperately need to be able to detect cancer at a point when the disease can be cured without creating needless anxiety for patients or a burden to the health system.

“To achieve this, we need to seize upon the excellent work already being done in advanced imaging technologies and artificial intelligence, to understand how this can developed for use in hospitals. When work was once happening in isolation the Alliance will bring expertise together across institutions to take a holistic approach to detecting cancer earlier.”

Advances in early detection technologies will help decrease late-stage diagnosis and increase the proportion of people diagnosed at an early and treatable stage, so a future for more patients can be secured.

Great strides have been made through existing screening programmes, such as for bowel, breast and cervical cancer, and increasing public awareness and GP urgent referral of patients with suspicious symptoms. However, for many cancer types no screening tools exist and new technologies for detecting cancer have been slow to emerge. 

By bringing together some of the leading research institutions in the world in early detection, ACED will accelerate breakthroughs, leading to quicker benefits for patients.

Scientists in the Alliance will work together at the forefront of technological innovation to translate research into realistic ways to improve cancer diagnosis, which can be implemented into health systems. Potential areas of research include:

  • Developing new improved imaging techniques and robotics, to detect early tumours and pre-cancerous lesions
  • Increasing understanding of how the environment surrounding a tumour influences cancer development
  • Developing less invasive and simpler detection techniques such as blood, breath and urine tests, which can monitor patients who are at a higher risk of certain cancers
  • Searching for early stress signals sent out from tumours or surrounding damaged tissue as a new indication of cancer
  • Looking for early signs of cancer in surrounding tissue and fluids to help diagnose hard to reach tumours
  • Harnessing the potential of artificial intelligence and big data to look for signs of cancer that are undetectable to humans.

Cancer Research UK will invest up to £40 million over the next five years into ACED, while additional contributions from Stanford University and the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute will take the total potential contributions to more than £55 million.

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “Now is the time to be ambitious and develop effective new ways to detect cancer earlier. It’s an area of research where we have the potential to completely change the future of cancer treatment, turning it into a manageable and beatable disease for more people.

“Real progress in early detection can’t be achieved by a single organisation. Benefits for patients will only be realised if early cancer detection leaders from around the word come together.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “Every two minutes, someone in the UK has their world turned upside down when they are diagnosed with cancer. Thanks to the pioneering work of UK researchers and our world-beating NHS, more people are surviving than ever.

“However, there is more to do to detect and cure this disease earlier. That is why I am pleased to welcome this new UK-US alliance, driven by Cancer Research UK.”

The Alliance will be a globally unique platform that is able to test and validate early detection innovations in real-world hospital and healthcare settings. The partners will engage with pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in the research field to ensure discoveries can achieve economies of scale and reach patients as soon as possible.

The Alliance will also be in a unique position to train and develop a new generation of early cancer detection research leaders, learning from the very best that both countries and all five centres have to offer.



  • Tumour, seen using photoacoustic imaging, one of the techniques UCL researchers are using to detect cancer. Image taken from study led by Professor Paul Beard (UCL Medical Physics & Biomedical Engineering) in Nature Photonics (Jathoul et al 2015)

Media contact

Henry Killworth 

Tel: +44 207 679 5296

E: h.killworth [at] ucl.ac.uk