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Dr Bethan Psaila and her team will investigate the potential of circulating blood platelets for early detection of a range of cancer types.

It is known that the earlier a cancer is detected, the more likely a cancer patient is to have better outcomes. One of the challenges for achieving early detection is to develop a minimally invasive test to detect the signs of early cancer in the body.

Because blood tests are simple to carry out in the clinic, a lot of effort has been focused on detecting molecules released from cancer cells in blood samples – so-called ‘liquid biopsies’. However, the majority of techniques that are used currently have a low sensitivity for early-stage cancers, due to low levels of cancer cell-derived molecules being present in blood plasma.

Dr Bethan Psaila, Group Leader at the Medical Research Council Molecular Haematology Unit (MRC MHU) and principal investigator at the Radcliffe Department of Medicine at Oxford University, and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) Advanced Clinician Scientist, is pioneering an approach that might be able to enrich for cancer-derived molecules in the blood. Working with Professor Chris Gregory (University of Edinburgh), Professor Paul Rees (University of Swansea) and Dr Henkjan Gersen (University of Bristol), Beth is leading a multi-disciplinary team that brings together cancer cell biologists, and imaging and engineering expertise to explore the use of platelets for early cancer diagnosis.

Platelets perfuse tumours and take up cancer cell-derived biomolecules. Isolating platelets from the blood and analysing their contents will hopefully be a more sensitive method for detecting cancer-specific molecules in the blood.

In this newly funded project, the team will use state-of-the-art pre-clinical models as well as samples from patients with colorectal cancer, pancreatic cancer and oesophageal cancer as exemplar cancers to assess the utility of ‘tumour-educated’ platelets (TEPs) for early cancer diagnosis. They will use detailed imaging and biomechanical techniques to assess whether TEPs can be reliably distinguished from platelets in healthy people or those with non-malignant disorders.

This multi-institutional project is funded by a Cancer Research UK Early Detection and Diagnosis Project Award and builds on a successful CRUK Innovation Award the team received after a workshop on liquid biopsy technologies in 2018. The ~£650,000 award will run for four years and will support two DPhil studentships, a postdoctoral research scientist and a research assistant.

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