So here we are, 3 years down the line since Terry Hopkinson came to my laboratory to see what we were doing with cancer stem cells, and persuaded his many friends on the Northern Soul Scene to join him in the venture that has become Charity Soul. I know that the motivation, the loss of a close friend, could not be any stronger for wanting to make a difference, but that does not ensure success. Well we now know, almost £40,000 later that not only are Northern Soul people really generous, but just how strong that motivation is.
Cancer research, which is what I have done since 1974, comes in many flavours. There is near patient research, trying out new drugs on volunteers, in whom the treatments do not always work, but which most non-scientists can understand. But there is also, at the other end of the spectrum, basic research, which I have done for all that time, which I can best describe a making the bullets for others to fire at the cancer. New ideas, new ways of killing off ALL the cells in the cancer, including the treatment resisting cancer stem cells, which we were the first to discover in York back in 2004 – this is what we deal in.
My research thrives on such new ideas, and the funds from Charity Soul have allowed us to ask these new questions, and to understand how cancer stem cells work, with the aim of finding better ways to kill them. We don’t make the drugs, we leave that to chemists and small pharmaceutical companies. But we test them in real prostate cancers from actual patients in Yorkshire, so if they are good drugs, the big step from the laboratory to the clinic is easier and potentially more successful in more patients than at present.
We are also doing something with our Charity Soul funding which may seem a little crazy. We are trying to causecancer, using a new technique called gene editing (or clipping). Over the last 2 years we have made this complex and revolutionary technique work in prostate cells. But why should we want to cause cancer, when surely our aim should be to cure it? Let me try to explain. Cancer a bit like a small clump of trees growing too closely together, or seeds which have been sown too thickly. To make the ones we want grow more strongly, we need to prune or remove the extras. But which ones should we remove? Pull out the wrong ones and you lose everything!
In a cancer, which is caused by changes to DNA known as mutations, there are many such changes. But we don’t always know the key changes (known as driver mutations) relative to the many other changes (known as secondary or passenger mutations). We need to find the driver mutations, which are present in the cancer stem cells. The Gene Clipping technique now allows me to take a normal cell, and one-by –one specifically edit the DNA to put in these driver mutations. If I am right, then at some point I’ll get a new cancer, then we’ll know the weak point of the tumour where we must attack it. This doesn’t happen overnight. It normally takes about 3 months for each experiment. The editings have been carried out by young scientists, visiting the lab from Germany and The Netherlands (for example) as a part of their training, so Charity Soul has paid just for the material and not salaries. Next year we are setting up a editing team of undergraduates from York, starting in October, who will train for a couple of months (this is HARD to do), and should allow us to target almost all of the genes I think are drivers. I’ll keep you posted on their progress.
The other major use of the funds was to buy gold. A good plan in difficult times after Brexit! No, this is very special gold, which I have written about before, known as Smartflares. It allows us to put a label inside living cancer cells, and to follow their responses to treatment. Using a new kind of microscope we can watch these cells while they are responding (or resisting in the case if cancer stem cells) to treatments. Nobody has done this before anywhere in the world, and we recently learned that the Charity Soul investment has been rewarded with an enormous grant from Prostate Cancer UK to employ 3 scientists in York. To get this grant, the Charity Soul supported research was examined by 8 independent cancer researchers (and patients) all of whom agreed that the work you funded was novel, world class and likely to bring benefits to cancer patients, not only in prostate cancer. Let me repeat, without Charity Soul there was no way we could have got this started, and after 2-3 years, we have a major reward. If the gene clipping and drug development goes the same way, then your efforts will have had an impact on cancer way beyond the £40,000 raised.
On behalf of myself and my team, thank you!
Prof Norman Maitland
Director of The Cancer Research Unit