August 19, 2016, by Michael Jennings

Developing the world’s first blood test for early detection of breast cancer

Q&A with John Robertson, Professor of Surgery in the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, and Director of the Centre of Excellence for Autoimmunity in Cancer, leads the team looking to develop the world’s first blood test for the early detection of breast cancer. He is riding 1,400 miles with Life Cycle 6 to help raise £1m for breast cancer research. Post originally published on our research website.

How would you explain your research?

The project supported by Life Cycle 6 is looking to find early signals of cancer in patients’ blood. We’ve never been able to detect the incorrect proteins produced by early cancer cells – it’s swamped by the normal proteins.

By the time we can detect the abnormal proteins the cancer has spread. So these antigens were useful as cancer markers but have never been useful in early detection. I turned my attention to antibodies in the blood.

The immune system responds to abnormal cancer proteins by producing antibodies, many more than the tiny amount of protein that triggered it, so rather than looking for a needle in a haystack you are looking for a haystack. You can look for the reaction to [the proteins] and hopefully find the cancer early enough to cure.

My second research project is developing drugs for breast cancer. We have made significant advances but breast cancer is still the third most common cause of death across the population and the second most common cause of death among women in this country. There is clearly a lot to do.

What inspired you to pursue this area?

My wife used to say Clem Imrie, a surgeon in Glasgow who also did research, was the reason I got into this – she said it was his fault! He just had an excitement about his own work and that inspired me to also do research. One of the things I love about it is you’re always seeing something new – in the blood test we’re doing things which people haven’t seen before.

How will your research affect the average person?

It will allow people to have the risk identified and managed more appropriately. So we would see better outcomes, less aggressive treatments and increased survival rates. It would be more cost-effective and we wouldn’t need as many drugs for as many patients.

What’s been the greatest moment of your career so far?

For me, taking an idea from initial concept in 1995 through to a clinical test that patients can use has been the greatest satisfaction. That idea [EarlyCDT-Lung, a blood test for early detection of lung cancer] has held up 21 years later. The University’s spinout company, Oncimmune, has developed a clinical test that is now being used in certain countries.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in research?

Find something that is really of interest to you – you’re going to do this for a long time. Work hard. Einstein said the harder I work the luckier I get. To achieve you need a work-life balance but real commitment to bring your work forward.

What’s the biggest challenge in your field?

We know that early detection saves lives but we certainly haven’t found the optimal screening test for cancer and particularly for the three most common cancers (lung, colon and breast cancers), which cause so many deaths. In breast cancer the challenge is to find treatments that are targeted and are not over treating or under treating.

What research other than your own excites you?

A group of researchers focusing on HER2, a breast cancer subtype, over the past 20 years have made an enormous difference in the outlook of these women. It used to be a tumour type that had a very poor prognosis and with new treatments that has radically changed.

If you could jump forward 100 years, what’s the first thing you’d look up?

I’d like to see where man had got to in terms of exploration of the Universe. We’re moving forward at such a speed and if we see a similar exponential growth in science and knowledge in the next 100 years we’re going to have new understanding in terms of space, colonisation, energy, time travel.

If you could go back in time, where and when would you go?

I think from a medical perspective to go back to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century when we were seeing new understanding of disease processes, and becoming more rational in terms of surgery and treatments. These must have been heady days.

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