Discover our recent history of pioneering cancer research

Olaparib: New therapy for breast cancer

On average, there are 55,920 new cases of breast cancer in the UK each year. Approximately 20-25 per cent of patients with hereditary breast cancers and 5-10 per cent of patients with any type of breast cancer have a BRCA gene mutation.

A discovery made at the University of Sheffield and funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research is the first treatment to be approved for secondary breast cancer patients with the BRCA gene mutation. Typically, BRCA genes repair damaged DNA and normally prevent tumour development however, mutations of these genes may lead to certain cancers, including breast cancers.

Tumours with BRCA mutations rely on a protein called PARP for survival. In 2005, Professor Thomas Helleday, Dr Helen Bryant and their team discovered that this protein can be targeted and suppressed by a drug that will prevent the BRCA mutated cell from growing, eventually killing it.

Normal cells of the patient where BRCA still functions are not affected. The novel element of the treatment is the fact that it is the mutation causing cancer that is exploited to specifically kill the cancer; this reduces the side effects often experienced with traditional anti-cancer treatments.

The discovery was patent protected and licensed to pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, who developed and successfully trialled a PARP inhibitor called Olaparib, now licensed worldwide as Lynparza®.

Disclosure of the research findings revolutionised approaches to cancer therapy and stimulated intensive research and development in gene-based treatments. Four additional PARP inhibitors from different pharmaceutical companies have now been clinically approved and are extending progression-free survival for a range of cancers including breast, ovarian, fallopian tube, peritoneal and pancreatic in
73 countries.

Lynparza® became the first gene therapy to be made available on the NHS and has generated £1.2bn in sales since 2017. The University’s licensing income from the drug is being invested in new research projects and capacity through the Yorkshire Cancer Research More Life to Live Fund and the Yorkshire Cancer Research Sheffield Pioneers Fund.

Electrical Impedance Tomography: Accurate and non-invasive cervical screening

In the UK, cervical screening is available to anyone with a cervix between the ages of 25 to 64. The test helps clinicians to identify changes in the cervix that could develop into cancer if left untreated. If detected, the patient is referred for a colposcopy. As well as having limited accuracy, this diagnostic procedure is invasive, uncomfortable and requires patients to wait for up to a month to receive results.

Electrical Impedance Tomography (EIT) is a non-invasive imaging technology pioneered by Professor Brian Brown at the University of Sheffield. Together with Professors Tidy and Sharp from Sheffield Teaching Hospitals, Professor Brown investigated the application of EIT to cancerous tissues. The findings led to the development of ZedScan; a commercially available hand-held device for detecting cancerous and pre-cancerous cells in the cervix.

The device has improved patient experience, is quick to use and offers a result in minutes rather than weeks. It is inexpensive to produce and has reduced overtreatment, saving the NHS unnecessary costs from additional colposcopy since 2014.

A clinical study of the device’s performance found it to be quicker and more accurate in detecting cervical cancer than a colposcopy alone. Since 2018, it has been recommended for use in practice by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as an adjunctive colposcopy technologies for assessing suspected cervical abnormalities.


Bisphosphonates for breast cancer: Changing clinical guidelines in the UK

There are around 11,500 breast cancer deaths in the UK every year, that’s 32 deaths every day. Many of these deaths are due to metastasis, a complex process where the cancer has spread to a different part of the body than where it started.

Over the past twenty years, clinical and pre-clinical programmes in Sheffield have been studying the effects of drugs called bisphosphonates (BPs) on metastasis.

In 2003, the University sponsored the AZURE trial of over 3,000 women in seven countries. Funded by Novartis in partnership with the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR), AZURE provided the first evidence that BPs caused a significant and long-lasting improvement in relapse and overall survival rates for postmenopausal women with early breast cancer.

Researchers from the University led the data analysis of clinical trials to confirm conclusions and change clinical guidelines in the UK. The guidelines now recommend increasing the routine use of BPs to treat postmenopausal women with early breast cancer. The subsequent reduction in breast cancer mortality in the UK alone is equivalent to some 1,000 lives saved per year, with related annual savings of £50m in reduced treatment costs to the NHS.

Increasing the uptake in bowel screening

Bowel cancer accounts for around 16,000 deaths and 41,000 diagnoses each year in the UK. Screening can prevent bowel cancer or find it at an early stage when it’s easier to treat and is estimated to save around 2,400 lives a year.

Free home test kits are currently sent to people over the age of 60 every two years, but studies have shown that there is a lower screening uptake in deprived areas across the country.

Since 2004 the University of Sheffield’s Centre for Health and Related Research (SCHARR) has been working closely with the Department of Health and Social Care,Public Health England and the UK National Screening Committee to help close this gap.

Researchers from SCHARR have developed an accurate mathematical model of the screening system that incorporates a range of factors including disease history, diagnosis, treatment and surveillance. It analyses data to predict the mortality rate and ratio of bowel cancer across the UK. The model has been applied to current data to provide evidence and inform the implementation of bowel cancer screening in the UK.

Since facilitating decision-making around the English bowel cancer screening program, the uptake of screening has increased. The improved participation in screening has helped more bowel cancer patients to get diagnosed and treated as well as bringing down costs of treatment and saving lives.

Preventing unnecessary prostate procedures

Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men. In the UK, one in eight men will be diagnosed with it in their lifetime.

Screening for prostate cancer has involved a blood test followed by a prostate biopsy for patients who showed high levels for prostate specific antigen (PSA). However, most men with additional PSA do not have cancer and undergo a costly, invasive procedure unnecessarily.

Researchers from the Division of Clinical Medicine led an eight-year randomised control trial (ProtecT) across nine UK cities to highlight the inaccuracies of biopsy screenings for prostate cancer. Funded by the NHS, the study also revealed that the procedure led to high anxiety amongst patients, with 12 per cent visiting a healthcare provider after their biopsy and 20 per cent reporting that having another biopsy would be problematic.

These findings led both the UK National Screening Committee and NICE to conclude that the harms of biopsy (in terms of an inaccurate diagnosis, over-treatment and adverse events) outweighed the benefits and to recommend against PSA screening in men without symptoms. The decision not to introduce PSA-based prostate cancer screening across the UK is due in part to the ProtecT findings.