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5 ways we’re fighting disease

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5 ways we’re fighting disease

Newcastle University is at the forefront of the fight against diseases around the world. Here are just five of the people and projects that are making a difference.

Spotting skin cancer early

Melanoma is the deadliest skin cancer and is on the increase worldwide, with 17,000 patients diagnosed in the UK alone each year. It is the leading cause of cancer-related deaths among 20–35-year-olds.

Currently, the risk of the disease spreading is determined by the appearance and depth of the tumour. Early stage 1 tumours are treated by surgical removal and patients are then monitored for five years. Despite this, around 10% see their early-stage melanomas spread, leading to a five-year survival rate of less than 10%.

A team of researchers from Newcastle University’s Institute of Cellular Medicine, led by Professor Penny Lovat, has developed a new test that identifies those most at risk of the condition spreading. It enables increased clinical and radiological surveillance and earlier access to potentially life-saving treatments.

Called AMBLor, it is undergoing clinical evaluation and should be launched within two years.

Cells in a Petri dish.

Treating liver cancer

Liver cancer deaths have more than tripled in the UK since the 1970s. Scientists from Newcastle University are spearheading a research project that could revolutionise treatment for people with the disease.

Professor Helen Reeves and her team are leading the joint UK and European project to help find better treatments for liver cancer – the fastest growing cause of cancer deaths in the UK. The disease is linked to smoking, infections, drinking too much alcohol and being overweight.

Prevention measures are critical, but more research is needed to improve treatment and outcomes for patients. Liver cancer is one of the hardest cancers to treat, with only 11% of patients in Europe and 9% in the UK surviving for more than five years.

The researchers aim to adapt immunotherapy treatments, which have shown an increase in survival in other cancer types.

Cells in Petri dish.

Fighting back against dementia

Led by its Director, Professor Dame Louise Robinson, the Newcastle University Institute for Ageing is one of three Centres of Excellence recognised by the Alzheimer’s Society, which awarded the institute a record £1,680,224 grant. The money will allow researchers to focus on priority areas within dementia care. A central aim is to develop a shared care pathway that allows good quality care to be delivered by GPs.

A key aspect of the University’s dementia research is identifying the factors that cause – or increase people’s risk of developing – the condition. Recent research among 10,000 65-year-olds found that the rate of dementia was 20% less than in a previous study. Suggesting that factors like exercise, good diet, not smoking, and treating illnesses like high blood pressure could prevent or delay the illness.

Cells in a Petri dish.

Killing ‘zombie’ cells

Ageing is one of the main risk factors for heart failure because older people are more likely to develop heart disease and don’t recover as well after a heart attack. There are currently more than 580,000 people in the UK on a GP heart failure register.

Research led by Dr Gavin Richardson, Dr Jeanne Mialet-Perez and Dr João Passos (who has since moved on to work at the Mayo Clinic), and funded by the British Heart Foundation, has studied the role that senescent cells – also known as zombie cells – play in heart failure.

Zombie cells get their nickname because they are not dead but don’t function correctly and can cause cells around them to become senescent. Previously it was thought that cells only became senescent as a result of cell division, but the team found that heart cells can be ‘zombified’ by stress.

They now believe that these cells could be removed using drugs and, if this is validated in clinical trials, it could provide a new way to treat cardiac disease.

Cells in a Petri dish.

Tackling Type 2 diabetes

Research at Newcastle University identified exactly what caused Type 2 diabetes and pointed to a way of putting it into long-term remission. This not only improves the health of patients but could also save the NHS money that can be reinvested in frontline care. Currently, the health service in England spends around 10% of its budget on treating diabetes.

A liquid diet of just 800 calories a day for three months will be trialled by the NHS. This follows a Diabetes UK-funded trial in which almost half of those who went on a very low-calorie diet achieved remission of their Type 2 diabetes within a year. Professor Roy Taylor, Director of Newcastle University’s Magnetic Resonance Centre, was the co-primary investigator in the trial.

Cells in a Petri dish.