Durham astronomers join forces with cancer researchers after £1m grant

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In what may seem like an unlikely pairing, academics in Durham’s Astronomy Department have joined forces with NHS providers to improve the diagnosis and treatment of cancer patients.

Their work focuses on people with cancer of unknown primary (CUP). This means that the cancer has spread throughout the patient’s body, but that doctors can’t trace where the original tumour started. Without this information, it is difficult to determine which treatment to use.

The Durham researchers on the project are James Nightingale and Richard Massey. Nightingale has spent much of his career studying the dark matter that allows galaxies to form and grow. An advocate for crossdisciplinary research, he and his team are now using “astrostatistics” to model the efficacy of different cancer therapies, in order to understand how different treatments affect different cancers.

The statistical methods involved have traditionally been used to model the evolution of the universe. The cross-disciplinary team hopes to utilise Durham cosmologists’ expertise in statistical modelling to improve treatment for cancer patients.

The results of the research will be crucial to to improving CUP prognoses.

Patients with CUP currently have a poor prognosis. Every day, approximately 26 people die from CUP in the UK. There are no approved immunotherapies and limited targeted therapies. The results of the research will therefore be crucial to improving CUP prognoses.

The project follows the award of a government grant worth £1 million. Also involved are biotech company Concr and healthcare giant Roche.

Kelly Warrington, a research lead on the project, said in a statement: “the biggest breakthroughs in science often happen when different organisations come together to remove the barriers which stifle progress. This partnership is a perfect example of that.”

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