Meet the first winner of a new award for cancer research

cancer child

(Credit; Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Belén Garijo, Chief Executive Officer, Healthcare; Member of the Executive Board, Merck

  • The Johann Anton Merck award celebrates the best new scientific research in oncology and autoimmunity.
  • Its inaugural winner is Professor Caroline Dive of the University of Manchester.
  • Her work on liquid biopsies is making testing simpler, as well as more accessible and repeatable, and can help to detect cancers earlier.

Cancer is pervasive and does not discriminate. It was responsible for 18.1 million new cases and 9.6 million deaths worldwide in 2018, and these numbers are expected to nearly double by 2040. These predictions are frightening, and it will take all of our best efforts as a unified research and development community to change this current upward trend.

Over the past decade, we have uncovered salient insights into cancer research and healthcare, and intensified the integration of research and clinical practice. One of the currently most promising areas poised to transform the field of cancer is immuno-oncology. The strategy of positioning our own body as an active participant in the fight against cancer is brilliant. We have an extraordinary chance to lift the burden of cancer patients, their families and care takers.

Although we’re seeing spectacular results with certain immuno-oncology approaches – for example, with checkpoint inhibitors (proteins that disrupt the ability of cancer cells to hide from our immune system) and CAR T-cell therapy (chimeric antigen receptor T cells which are engineered to recognize a patient’s cancer cells) – the sad reality is that not nearly enough patients are reaping the benefits.

Inspiring curiosity and collaboration

Every single patient has a unique genetic version of his or her cancer and we’ve quickly learned that it is essential to understand this unique cancer signature and how it affects the response to therapy. What drives molecular changes, what is the cause of a weak response to therapy in some patients and how can we shorten the time it takes to bring a drug to the market? Understanding the biological underpinnings of cancer and the interactions between cancer cells and our immune system are urgently important if we want to dampen the increase in cancer prevalence.

It’s no different for the business aspect of drug development. In order to create breakthroughs in healthcare, we must look deep into our portfolio and understand the decisions and choices we are making. Over the past decade, we have diligently strengthened our research and development, and in particular, our clinical development approach, by focusing on talent and expertise. We have increased our investment in technology and education as these go hand-in-hand with innovation, without which we simply won’t meet our goals.

More importantly, we recognize that we need more research diversity. We cannot do this alone and that it’s going to take much more than the pharmaceutical industry to reach a cancer-free world. Our partnerships and collaborations, such as our partnership with the World Economic Forum, benefit the patient community and our healthcare systems. Sharing knowledge and resources smartly leads to faster, effective and more personalized treatments for more patients, and to relieving the burden of disease globally.

The Johann Anton Merck Award

This year, I’m honoured to announce the very first Johann Anton Merck Award for outstanding scientific preclinical research in the areas of oncology and autoimmunity.

Johann Anton Merck (1756-1805) was a fifth-generation pharmacist, whose love of the natural world was reflected in his research, which he conducted throughout his life alongside the pharmacy. He was a meticulous note-taker, recording formulations and variations of old formulations, as well as dosage and effects. He ventured into compound medicines, which, at the time, required advanced knowledge of chemistry, as well as the courage to use what was considered innovative and contemporary medicine-making techniques and equipment. In addition to being well-traveled and highly educated, Johann Anton retained and expanded the family’s professional networks. Johann Anton’s attitude of curiosity and innovation paved the way for his son, Heinrich Emanuel Merck, to successfully establish what has now become the modern Merck pharmaceutical company.

It is this spirit of curiosity, passion for innovation and understanding of the importance of collaboration that guided us in the selection of an external scientist for this prestigious award: Caroline Dive, PhD, Professor of Cancer Pharmacology at the University of Manchester.

Initially trained as a pharmacist, Caroline completed her PhD in clinical oncology. She has special expertise in circulating tumor cells (CTC), circulating DNA/RNA and tissue-based biomarkers for clinical application. Caroline’s group specializes in small cell lung cancer and CTC-derived preclinical models that faithfully mimic this cancer in humans. In pursuit of her goal to develop a non-invasive test for detecting, monitoring and assessing the disease and treatment in cancer patients, Caroline started looking at our blood.

Liquid biopsy

A liquid biopsy is a blood sample from a patient, in which we can detect biomarkers such as circulating tumour cells (cells released by a tumour that are often precursors of metastases) or cell-free tumour DNA (DNA shed from dying tumour cells). A liquid biopsy makes testing more readily accessible and repeatable, as it can be done with a simple blood draw and allows the analysis of tumours in hard-to-reach areas. The amounts and levels of biomarkers are indicators of the emergence and progression of cancer, as well as the cancer’s response to treatment.

Breakthrough in diagnostics and monitoring

Caroline has pioneered the development of liquid biopsy methods. Her discoveries help detect cancer at an earlier stage and are applied to monitor therapeutic efficacy. Her work is an example of how we, by collaborating across institutes and countries, by fostering the next generation of talent and by integrating technology into our research, can tip the scales in our favor and look forward to a cancer-free world.

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