Medical Breakthrough Award

02 June 2014

Medical breakthrough

A study which led to major changes in the treatment of prostate cancer, and researchers who identified a new gene causing an inherited form of bowel cancer, have jointly won the Medical Breakthrough prize at this year's Cardiff University Innovation and Impact Awards.

The award, for the identification, translation and commercialisation of the first gene for recessive predisposition to bowel cancer (MUTYH), was presented to Professor Malcolm Mason, Matt Sydes (Medical Research Council) and Professor Julian Sampson by David Baynes, Director of IP Group Plc.

The researchers discovered a gene, MUTYH, that, when damaged, leads to a risk of over 80% of bowel cancer. The findings allowed the team to develop tests to screen relatives for pre-malignant signs of the disease at which point curative treatment is the norm. The tests have since been licensed and rolled out across the world.

Led by Professors Julian Sampson and Jeremy Cheadle, the research improved genetic counselling, genetic testing and bowel cancer prevention in colorectal cancer worldwide, and led to more efficient targeting of colonoscopic screening services to high risk patients.

Professor Sampson said: "Without screening and preventative surgery, individuals who inherited this faulty gene from their parents would have gone on to develop bowel cancer."

"The siblings of those affected by this inherited form of bowel cancer were at a one-in-four risk of developing bowel cancer themselves. But prior to development of the gene test family members usually had no idea they were also at very high risk"

Now, clinicians can use a diagnostic test for particular mutations of MUTYH to screen families of patients with bowel cancer, allowing doctors to remove the affected part of the bowel before tumours become malignant.

Professor Jeremy Cheadle said: "The work has had significant commercial impact. MUTYH gene testing is now carried out by at least 84 state and private sector diagnostic laboratories in Europe, and at centres in Australasia. In North America, the University has taken out patents and has licenced intellectual property rights to a US company, Myriad Genetics Inc, generating income of about a third of a million pounds for Cardiff University in royalties."

More than 11,000 patient samples have been tested internationally for MUTYH mutation since the gene was discovered, generating income of around $5m in licence fees for Myriad.

Professor Sampson added: "The changes in clinical genetics, bowel screening and treatment practice based on our research have been incorporated into guidelines published by specialist societies and expert groups in the UK, Europe, North America and Australasia."

Scientists discover gold's hidden value

19 June 2014

gold's hidden value

Scientists from Cardiff are discovering new and unexpected uses for gold – a noble metal traditionally regarded as being chemically uninteresting due to its poor ability to react with other substances.

Researchers at the School of Chemistry are pioneering new ways to exploit the revolutionary potential of gold to accelerate and optimise chemical processes in a range of industries from producing the plastics that modern life depends on to environmentally friendly energy production. Studies show that the main advantages of gold as a catalyst are its long lifetime, unusually high reactivity and high specificity to the desired product.

"Gold has been a subject of human fascination for millennia, largely because of its resistance to corrosion and its resulting sustained beauty," said Professor Graham Hutchings, FRS Director of the Cardiff Catalysis Institute (CCI). "However, when broken down into nanoparticles, which contain just a few hundred atoms, it not only changes colour; it also becomes incredibly reactive, so contrary to the old adage; not even all that is gold glitters. Our research into the effect of gold nanoparticles on chemical and biological processes shows that in its nanoparticle form, gold's reactions are faster, easier and energetically more efficient than many other catalysts." 

Catalysis is an enabling technology that underpins an estimated 80-90% of all manufactured goods. The phenomenon involves a material, which is not one of the reactants, speeding up a desired chemical reaction without the need for an increase in temperature. Commonly used catalysts such as those containing mercury have proven wasteful, environmentally hazardous and even harmful to human health. Gold, scientists have discovered, is not only a viable alternative catalyst but sometimes, the best possible catalyst.

Professor Hutchings believes that gold has the potential to save lives, improve human health and clean up the environment: "Too many processes create too much waste and not enough product. By introducing a gold catalyst we can reduce the amount of waste and increase the productivity for the benefit of a number of processes. The more we learn about this precious metal, the more I feel that society is ascribing the wrong kind of value to gold."

He adds: "One of the initial discoveries we made is that gold is the best catalyst for the formation of vinyl chloride, the main ingredient for the production of PVC and has the potential to replace an environmentally harmful mercury catalyst, this would be a major benefit to society. Gold is also used as a catalyst to oxidise carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide. This has potential to be used in natural disasters where people are trapped in an enclosed space, such as mine shafts, and poisonous carbon monoxide (CO) needs to be removed from the air - but also in domestic settings where people live alongside equipment that has a risk of CO production from incomplete combustion e.g. gas heaters, cookers, petrol engines."

Catalysts are under continual development to achieve new levels of activity and selectivity to society's desired chemical products. Using gold in catalysis could enable society to make better use of precious raw materials and to exploit new, greener sources by generating fuels, plastics and other chemicals from renewables such as corn starch, glycerol and recycled waste. Smarter use of catalysis will also lower our energy consumption and help in the decentralisation of activities such as water purification and small scale electrical power generation. 

Research at Cardiff Catalysis Institute (CCI) is currently exploring the possibility of using gold as a "cold start" catalyst in car exhaust systems to reduce carbon emissions. The current catalysts depend on the heat of the exhaust to become active. This means that the first few minutes of any journey produce the most emissions of CO and NOx. As gold can work at lower temperature than conventional catalysts, it could be used in this early stage.

The research showed that the risk of death for men suffering from locally advanced or high-risk prostate cancer could be cut significantly by adding radiation therapy to standard hormone treatments.

Professor Malcolm Mason, Cancer Research Wales Professor of Clinical Oncology at the School of Medicine, led the UK arm of the research trial into prostate cancer since 1998, when he was appointed as the UK Chief Investigator, leading the study in this country for the Medical Research Council. Prostate cancer kills around 10,000 men in the UK every year.

Researchers presented new evidence showing that survival rates significantly improve if radiation is added to standard hormone treatments when treating men whose cancer has spread beyond the prostate.

Professor Mason said: "The study has been hailed as something that may change clinical practice. Based on the evidence we have, it would result in the prevention of 43 per cent of deaths from prostate cancer in men with locally advanced cancer.

"Such men make up around 40 percent of all new cases of prostate cancer in the UK, and therefore the results have the potential, worldwide, to prevent thousands of deaths from prostate cancer every year. The success of this study is a real testament to international collaboration."

Matt Sydes, Senior Scientist in the Medical Research Council Clinical Trials Unit added: "This trial exemplifies the importance of international randomised controlled trials in high quality evidence-based medicine. Good data underpins good decision-making. By gathering robust statistics, we were able to show how we could target, and treat, high risk patients."

Locally advanced prostate cancer (where a tumour has extended outside the prostate gland to surrounding tissues) affects around 4,000 men per year in the UK. Prior to the underpinning research, there was no consensus on the standard of care, with hormone therapy often being given alone.

The International randomised clinical trial, led by Cardiff researchers showed that treating locally advanced disease with a combination of radiotherapy and hormone therapy halved the risks of dying of prostate cancer.  

The trial changed medical guidelines and practice in Europe and North America. Prior to the underpinning research, hormone therapy alone was considered adequate treatment. Following Professor Mason's study, NICE guidelines now advise that 100% of patients suitable for radiotherapy must be offered it.