Leeds scientists to lead the way in next generation of radiotherapy research

Leeds scientists and clinicians have been awarded a major cash boost from Cancer Research UK to pioneer new radiotherapy technologies and techniques.

These new tools could help more people in Yorkshire survive cancer in the future.

Led by Professor David Sebag-Montefiore, experts from the University of Leeds and the Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust are set to receive £3.5 million over the next five years to fund advances in radiotherapy research, including the use of artificial intelligence with imaging technology.

Leeds has been chosen to be one of just seven Centres of Excellence** in a UK-wide network, RadNet, that will accelerate advances in radiotherapy research. Other centres will be located in Manchester, Cambridge, Oxford, Glasgow and London.

In total, Cancer Research UK is investing £56 million*** in Cancer Research UK RadNet – the charity’s largest ever investment in radiotherapy research.

Radiotherapy is a precise treatment that is given to patients as an out-patient on a daily basis. In its simplest form, it uses high energy X-ray radiation beams to selectively kill cancer cells by irreversibly damaging their DNA, while minimising the effect on the surrounding normal tissues.

Cancer Research UK supported some of the earliest research into the treatment of cancer with radiation, and pioneered the first use of radiotherapy in the 1920s.

Today, the Leeds Cancer Centre, based at St James’s University Hospital, is one of the largest radiotherapy centres in the UK.  It treats more than 7,400 new cancer patients from across the region every year. Radiotherapy is used in over 40% of patients cured of their cancer. 

Directed by Professor David Sebag-Montefiore, the research at the Leeds Centre of Excellence will combine the use of artificial intelligence, magnetic resonance imaging and new drugs with radiotherapy, focussing on patients with anal, rectal, prostate, liver and brain cancers. 

The support of the Hospital’s Leeds Cares charity played a key role in the successful bid for the Centre of Excellence funding.  It raised £2.4 million to purchase a dedicated MRI Simulator, a critical piece of equipment to allow patients to have MRI scans performed in the radiotherapy department. This will be the first MRI Simulator to be installed in Yorkshire. 

Professor Sebag-Montefiore with MRI machines

Professor Sebag-Montefiore said: “We are very proud that Leeds has been awarded this grant to bring the next generation of radiotherapy treatments to patients sooner, helping to save the lives of more people with cancer in Yorkshire.”

“Using artificial intelligence analysis of the MRI scans will help us to tailor future treatment for patients and reduce side effects, resulting in new, precise and personalised treatments - and a better quality of life afterwards - in the next five to ten years.

“Working with other colleagues in imaging, computing and AI disciplines, and combining research excellence across different areas of science, will allow us to deliver this in the quickest timeframe.

“This funding from Cancer Research UK will help us accelerate our development of new and advanced radiotherapy techniques, leading to the best treatment approaches for patients across a broad range of cancers, challenging the boundaries of this mainstay treatment through world-first exploratory projects and taking our research in Leeds to an internationally-leading level.

“It will also fund 13 new researcher posts and strengthen Leeds’s position as an excellent destination to train the next generation of researchers.”

The Leeds research team includes collaborators from multiple disciplines, including the University’s School of Medicine, Leeds Institute of Medical Research, Leeds Institute of Clinical Trials Research and the School of Computing. They’ll work with Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust clinicians and researchers to advance imaging and data analytics for radiotherapy.

Professor Alejandro Frangi, Diamond Jubilee Chair in Computational Medicine at the School of Computing, said: “Myself and other CISTIB members will be supporting the CRUK RadNet centre in Leeds through our collective expertise in medical image computing and image-based computational modelling.  We will be using artificial intelligence and biomechanical predictive models to personalise radiotherapy so it is more precise and adaptive.

“For instance, Dr Zeike Taylor (School of Mechanical Engineering) will be developing real-time biomechanical models that adapt the radiation dose to the respiratory motion so the radiation is focus on the target organs and avoids damaging non-target tissues. Dr Ali Gooya (School of Computing) will be developing artificial intelligence models that will take patient specific images and radiation plans and predicts tumor regression and toxicity so the optimal dose can be delivered at each time point.

“This work will be done in close collaboration with our clinical oncologist and medical physicists partners at St James’ Hospital in a truly interdisciplinary and collaborative way so patient outcome and healthcare delivery stays always at the top of our scientific priorities.”

This funding substantially grows the core Cancer Research UK infrastructure investment in Leeds, following their recent award of core funding for the Leeds Clinical Trials Unit.

Michelle Mitchell, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “Radiotherapy is a cornerstone of cancer medicine, with around 3 in 10 patients receiving it as part of their treatment. The launch of our network marks a new era of radiotherapy research in the UK. Scientists will combine advances in our understanding of cancer biology with cutting-edge technology to make this treatment more precise and effective than ever before”.

Sir Alan Langlands, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leeds, said: “Achieving the status of a Cancer Research UK Centre of Excellence is important recognition of our overall commitment to excellence in cancer care and the science which underpins it, in particular the outstanding quality and impact of radiotherapy research in Leeds. Improving cancer outcomes is at the heart of our research strategy and radiotherapy plays a crucially important role in increasing survival rates for a broad range of cancers.”

ProStep MRI simulator with two operatives

Yvette Oade, Deputy Chief Executive of Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, said: “Leeds Cancer Centre treats over 7,400 new cancer patients each year with radiotherapy, and at Leeds Teaching Hospitals we are fully committed to providing the best integrated care and helping to accelerate the development of new and better treatments. 

“We promote and support excellence in clinical work along with the research that creates new and exciting treatments and creating a new Centre of Excellence will help more of our patients survive cancer in the future.  We are proud to work in partnership with the University of Leeds and charities like Cancer Research UK and Leeds Cares to make all of this possible.”

Andrew Cratchley, Interim Managing Director of Leeds Cares, said: “As the official charity partner of Leeds Teaching Hospitals, Leeds Cares supports NHS staff to deliver the best care for patients and their families.  We are incredibly proud that donations to Leeds Cares enable us to support many services across the hospital, including the Radiotherapy Department at Leeds Cancer Centre. 

“Thanks to the inspiring generosity of our donors, we have been able to fund projects like the MRI Simulator. With ongoing support, we can continue to make a huge difference to radiotherapy patients across Yorkshire and beyond.”

Nicki Embleton, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for Yorkshire, said: “This award is fantastic recognition of the world leading radiotherapy research taking place here in Leeds, which will help shape a better future for people with cancer in Yorkshire through new technologies and treatments.

“People in the city have every right to feel proud of the ground-breaking research being carried out on their doorstep, and of their fundraising efforts, which are helping to beat the disease.”

She continued: “Every hour, around three people are diagnosed with cancer in Yorkshire and The Humber*****. That’s why we’re working every day to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat the disease.” 

To help support life-saving research, visit cruk.org

For press enquiries please contact Nicki Embleton, CRUK Regional Media Relations, on 07775 916502 / nicki.embleton@cancer.org.uk

Notes to editors:

** RadNet will unite seven centres of excellence across the country: the Universities of Leeds, Cambridge, Glasgow, Manchester and Oxford, the Cancer Research UK City of London Centre (a partnership between Queen Mary University of London, University College London, Kings College London and the Francis Crick Institute) and the Institute of Cancer Research in partnership with the Royal Marsden Hospital, London.

*** Over five years

**** Born after 1960

*****Based on the average annual number of new cases of cancer (ICD10 C00-C97 excl. C44) diagnosed in Yorkshire and The Humber between 2014-2016

Source: These data were extracted from the Public Health England’s Cancer Analysis System, snapshot CAS8038. Accessed 07/12/2018. This work is only possible because of data from the cancer registry, which is routinely collected by the NHS as part of patient care.