Scanner helps Bristol team lead the way in cancer research

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The delivery of a Veridex Circulating Tumour Cell (CTC) Scanner at the School of Clinical Sciences at Southmead Hospital is providing an exciting opportunity for a team of Bristol scientists and clinicians.

It will enable them to undertake potentially groundbreaking research into what controls cancer tumour cells and causes them to spread around the body.

Using a newly developed test called the CellSearch®CTC test the scanner has the potential to provide the means for more accurate measurement of cancer progression so that appropriate treatments are given.

There are only a handful of CTC scanners in the UK and this is the first scanner to be housed in a research institute based in a South West Hospital. The arrival of the scanner is exciting news for Bristol as it will potentially benefit patients who are getting cancer treatment at Southmead Hospital and the Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre.

Working in partnership with the two local NHS Trusts the research by scientists and clinicians at the University of the West of England, the University of Bristol, the Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre and the Bristol Urological Institute has the potential to identify better targeted treatment options for patients in Bristol with advanced cancer.

The scanner will be used to help the scientists and clinicians investigate metastases of cancer cells in blood samples taken from patients with prostate, breast and colon cancers.  Better insight into what causes cancer cells to metastasise (spread) will help the partnership to design and test new improved drugs for targeting and destroying these tumour cells that threaten the lives of many cancer patients.

Speaking on behalf of the research team; which includes Professor Jeff Holly (School of Clinical Sciences, University of Bristol), Professor David Gillatt (Director of the Bristol Urological Institute, Southmead Hospital), Mr Raj Persad (Consultant Surgeon) and Dr Amit Bahl (Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre); Professor Anthony Rhodes from UWE explains, “Currently tumour detection and monitoring is determined using imaging, bone scans and serum tumour markers like the PSA test for prostate cancer. These tests do not tell us at an early stage if the cells have started to break away from the original tumour or the extent of the spread of the cancer.

“The CTC scanner will allow us to measure very low cancer cell counts in blood samples. The machine detects levels as low as 1 to 4 circulating tumour cells in a single blood sample; this is significantly lower than the measurements achieved using other technologies available to us in Bristol up until now.

“Whilst the equipment will only initially be used for research, this ability to measure low CTC levels means we can more accurately predict progression of the disease. If there are fewer cells than a certain threshold then patient prognosis is good, a higher count than the threshold means less favourable prognosis and treatments can be tailored accordingly.”

Currently men have their prostate tumours removed at Southmead Hospital by a team of surgeons led by Professor David Gillatt. These men are then regularly monitored for recurrence using a PSA test. If a recurrence is indicated men are treated with radiotherapy at the Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre under the care of Dr Amit Bahl. The PSA test however cannot accurately predict the location of the tumour or if cells have moved to a secondary site in the body. Accurate information of CTC levels may help Dr Bahl to identify the men who have tumours that have spread. In these cases radiotherapy may be inappropriate and Dr Bahl will be able to reduce the number of men who undergo this treatment unnecessarily, and thus avoid the potential adverse side effects, and he will be able to more rapidly initiate more appropriate therapy for these men.

The CTC scanner provides the potential to discover more about the characteristics of tumour cells. Currently several groups in Bristol are investigating the behaviour of cancer cells using human cell lines in the laboratory but cells grown in a lab do not behave in the same way as cells that develop in living patients. The ability to acquire living cancer cells from patient’s blood samples will provide more relevant cells for lab experiments that will help Professor Holly’s and Professor Rhodes’s team of scientists to discover what causes cells to metastasise. This could lead to the development of improved new drugs that effectively target and destroy the circulating tumour cells that threaten peoples’ lives.

The scanner was funded by the Friends of Bristol Haematology and Oncology Centre who provided 50% of the cost of the purchase of the machine and the costs of running for a period of time, the John James Bristol Foundation and matched funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England.