Developing the best in cancer research, drug discovery and patient care


Researchers at the University of Glasgow are making significant advances in the treatment of cancer, finding better ways of matching therapies to patients and improving patient outcomes. The University brings together scientists and clinicians to develop the best in cancer research, drug discovery and patient care.

A personalised model of pancreatic cancer care

Currently the outlook for pancreatic cancer is poor and the disease is still largely incurable. Fewer than three in every 100 people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer can expect to make it to five years.

Professor Andrew Biankin, Director of Translation Research Centre in Cancer Science, has been using genome sequencing to predict which particular patients will respond better to different drugs. He contributes to the International Cancer Genome Consortium through extensively characterising the genomic, transcriptomic and epigenomic aberrations in pancreatic cancer, and is extending this knowledge to a personalised model of cancer care, where molecular characteristics guide treatment decisions.

Precision Medicine Ecosystem

Professor Biankin leads the country’s efforts as Scotland contributes to this large-scale global initiative through the recently launched Scottish Genomes Partnership, the University of Glasgow-led Stratified Medicine Scotland Innovation Centre (SMS-IC) and other major activities that constitute the Precision Medicine Ecosystem in Scotland.

The ecosystem aims to further develop personalised medicine for complex diseases and cancers through programmes like PRECISION-Panc, where pancreatic cancer patients are offered a personalised approach to their care by using cutting-edge technologies to find the right treatment for an individual, initially through offering clinical trials of the latest therapies and, in the longer term, from routine care.

Reclassification of pancreatic cancer

Professor Biankin and his research team have recently made a breakthrough reclassification of pancreatic cancer, offering new opportunities to treat the disease. The study has identified four key subtypes of pancreatic cancer, each with their own distinct characteristics and differential survival outcomes. This will lead to new insights into personalised therapeutic options for individual patients and a launch pad to investigate new treatments.

Professor Andrew Biankin discusses new developments in treating pancreatic cancer

Transforming the treatment of chronic myeloid leukaemia

Transforming the treatment of chronic myeloid leukaemia

Chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) is a rare form of blood cancer, with approximately 560 new cases diagnosed in the UK each year. Professor Holyoake, who sadly died on 30 August 2017 after a short illness, was the first to demonstrate that all CML patients have a pool of cancer-forming CML stem cells. These cells maintain the disease and drive relapse, and are resistant to the tyrosine-kinase inhibitors (TKI) drugs (such as imatinib) currently used to treat CML patients. This highlighted that for patients to be effectively treated and cured of disease, without risk of relapse, CML stem cells must be killed.

Professor Holyoake and her colleague Dr David Vetrie at the Institute of Cancer Science made significant breakthroughs, which could lead to new treatments for CML – using precision medicine to kill more than 90% of CML stem cells. This groundbreaking research identified drugs to target three different ‘Achilles heels’ of CML and attracted significant media attention. In the first study, published in Nature, the research team analysed both CML and normal blood stem cells and found two proteins that were key to the survival of CML stem cells. The group then developed a drug combination to simultaneously target these critical proteins and kill CML stem cells.

Significant breakthroughs

In the second study, published in Cancer Discovery, a third critical protein was identified, and a drug against this protein in combination with a TKI was able to kill the stem cells. The researchers used CML cells transplanted into mice to demonstrate that drugs targeting these proteins killed the cells that cause the leukaemia, effectively eradicating the disease. In both studies, normal blood cells were spared the effects of these novel drug combinations.

These results have potential implications for other cancers including acute myeloid leukaemia and brain tumours. This research, although at an early stage, is a fantastic example of precision medicine in action.

In March 2017, Professor Holyoake was awarded the prestigious Rowley Prize by the International CML Foundation in recognition of her ground breaking work understanding and targeting CML stem cells and in July 2017 she was awarded a Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) Royal Medal, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the field of Life Sciences. Previously, she has been recognised by numerous bodies, such as the Academy of Medical Sciences, and has actively promoted public awareness of CML. Professor Holyoake was the director of the Paul O’Gorman Leukaemia Research Centre and was a key member of the Advisory Board for the fundraising campaign to build the centre raising in excess of £4 million.

New research has revealed an "Achilles heel" of chronic myeloid leukaemia and found drugs to successfully target this weakness.