A new transatlantic research alliance of scientists from the UK and US, working on a five-year, £55m budget, will “birth” a tumour in lab-grown human tissue.
The International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED), made up of experts from Cancer Research UK and five top universities, hopes to promote “rapid, cost-effective” early intervention over the “expensive firefighting of late-stage disease”.
Scientists are already investigating how to take cells out of someone at high risk of developing cancer and reproduce them using a 3D printer to test under what conditions they are most likely to turn cancerous.
They also hope to develop screening tests that will detect multiple cancers, and use the power of imaging technology to identify which cells are most likely to become dangerous – and therefore avoid over-diagnosing patients.
But Dr David Crosby, head of early detection research at Cancer Research UK, said efforts in this area are hampered by the fact that researchers never get to see a cancer being born in humans.
“By the time you find a person who has cancer, that cancer is already kind of established, and cancer is a disease that evolves over its lifetime – it starts off as one thing but it changes and fragments and breaks and mutates over time.”
By giving birth to a cancer in a piece of synthetic human tissue in the lab, “you can see what it’s like on day one and hopefully be able to detect and intercept it,” he added.
Dr Crosby said it may take 30 years for the project to achieve its goals.
The project is launched as researchers at the University of Edinburgh announced they have developed new imaging technology to help picture how tumours form, another boost to early detection.
Patients’ survival rates increase three-fold for six different types of cancer if caught early at stage one, when the cancer is usually small and localised.