Fighting cancer's drug resistance with an evolutionary approach to research

Fighting cancer's drug resistance with an evolutionary approach to research

5 July 2018


At The Institute of Cancer Research, London, we know from long experience that bringing together the best scientists from different fields is vital for making the discoveries that defeat cancer. That is why, in 2017, we were thrilled to be awarded a £30m grant from the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRPIF) towards constructing a state-of-the-art, multidisciplinary Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery – a brand new building to help us continue our fight against cancer evolution and drug resistance.

The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) has spent more than a century leading the way in discovering new ways to beat cancer. We are today the most successful academic centre in the world at discovering new cancer drugs – having identified 20 new drug candidates since 2005 alone, and taken ten of those into clinical trials, mostly with our hospital partner, The Royal Marsden. One of our drugs, abiraterone, is now used around the world to treat hundreds of thousands of men with prostate cancer.

However, exciting though these advances are, there is a catch. Cancers often respond initially to these new-style targeted cancer treatments, only for the disease to later develop drug resistance and come back strongly. Our biggest challenge is tackling cancer’s inherent complexity and its ability to evolve as it progresses – because it is this which allows the disease to become resistant to treatment.

Fighting cancer evolution with team science

The new Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery aims to find new ways to combat cancer’s adaptability, evolution and drug resistance. We are not planning a conventional drug discovery building – far from it. Instead, we will be bringing together our world-leading drug discovery scientists from our Cancer Research UK Unit with evolutionary scientists from our pioneering Centre for Evolution and Cancer. We are eager to learn from the study of Darwinian evolution in designing and discovering new approaches to defeating cancer. We will be exploring ways to predict and anticipate paths to resistance, combine treatments to block off cancer’s evolutionary escape routes, and to create treatments that block the process of evolution itself, or are able to themselves adapt to changes in the cancer.

The new centre, located at the heart of the ICR’s Sutton Campus, will hold 275 scientists in at least 25 research teams. The building has been designed with collaboration at its core, with labs to support a diverse array of disciplines – from medicinal chemistry, pharmacology, cancer biology and evolutionary biology, to computational biology and structural and mathematical modelling.

The importance of UKRPIF funding

We would not have been able to proceed with the new building, or certainly not to have progressed it so quickly, without the support of UKRPIF. Our £30m grant is one of the largest awarded by the funding scheme, in recognition of the ICR’s track record in discovering new treatments and working with industry to take them to patients. Without the generous contribution from UKRPIF, funding for the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery would have to be obtained entirely from other sources - significantly delaying its construction.

What next?

Construction of the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery is also one of the early steps in our vision to work with our partner the London Borough of Sutton to develop The London Cancer Hub. Our plan is that The London Cancer Hub – which we are creating on our Sutton site – will be a vibrant community of scientists, doctors and innovative companies. Our aim is that it will become the world’s leading life-science campus focused on cancer, and that it will provide a major boost to the local, London-wide and UK economy. By co-locating with companies, we believe we can discover more cancer drugs, and to increase the chances that these treatments will make it to the market.

Securing UKRPIF funding has not only brought forward the construction of the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery, but is also supporting our vision for The London Cancer Hub. Together we can create the optimal environment for cancer research, with huge benefits for the life-sciences sector, the economy and, most importantly, for patients.