In the 1950s researchers from Bradford were amongst the earliest pioneers of a revolutionary treatment, chemotherapy. Now, over 60 years later, we are funding today’s forward-thinking innovators at the University of Bradford with a PhD Studentship Grant, providing the next generation of researchers with the funds to work towards finding kinder and more effective treatments for osteosarcoma patients. Dr Falconer explains more about the research project and Hannah tells us why she wanted to specialise in primary bone cancer.

Can you tell us about the research project?

We’re focusing our attention on Methotrexate, a chemotherapy drug routinely used to treat osteosarcoma patients. While Methotrexate is a useful drug, it also acts on normal cells in the body, which means another drug (leucovorin) also needs to be given to minimise any unwanted effects. Methotrexate needs to be given in very high doses and can cause potentially serious side-effects to the liver and kidneys.

We aim to chemically modify Methotrexate so that it will be inactive in the bloodstream and normal tissues, until it reaches the tumour where it will be ‘activated’, but before we can test this approach in patients we need to do work in the laboratory.

Why did you decide to try and chemically modify Methotrexate?

We were having a conversation with a clinician and I will never forget it! It was shocking to hear what patients go through. The clinician said, ‘please, is there anything you can do with Methotrexate for osteosarcoma’ and it started there.

Why it is so important for universities to research rare forms of cancer?

I think universities have a responsibly to do research into rare forms of cancer because a lot of companies choose to focus on cancers with the largest numbers of patients, so we can make a real difference. I often get challenged when progressing projects like this, because the patient population is really small so commercially speaking it’s not very attractive. I do, however, always make the argument that the reach to the clinic is possibly much faster because there is such a desperate need. There’s currently nothing else, and clinicians have often told us that if we’ve got an agent that proves promising, they are willing to consider trying it in patients.

How important do you think it is to fund a four-year PhD studentship?

It’s difficult to get funding for PhD Studentships, funding bodies lean towards grants for Postdoctoral Fellowships, but with a PhD studentship a student gets the opportunity to immerse themselves in a project and it provides a springboard for students like Hannah to be an expert in this area for her career.

Also, to fund a four-year PhD studentship, which are often three years, allows the PhD to evolve how it should and to do everything in three years is sometimes impossible, realistically not everything can be done in the three years.

If your research is successful how long could it take for patients to start experiencing the benefits?

Methotrexate is already being administered to current patients, however the work Hannah and I are carrying out means it will be a new chemical entity (i.e. a new drug) and would still need to go through regulatory approval. The PhD is four years and if everything was on target, it could potentially be two to three years after the PhD has been completed.

Over to you Hannah... Can you tell us why you wanted to be involved in the research project and specialise in primary bone cancer?

I’ve previously studied Clinical Sciences and a Master’s degree in Biomedical Sciences and that’s when I stepped into research. I wanted to look at research and specifically; how cancer develops, why it develops and how we can target it.

Before starting my PhD I was working with a number of researchers on different projects. I aided in developing novel compounds for targeting colon cancer as well as looking at peptide activity in Alzheimer’s disease.

Learning how awful osteosarcoma is for patients and the impact any novel treatment could have, is what drew me to this project. Knowing how awful Methotrexate is and what patients have to go through during treatment with this drug, I’ve become aware that a small change will make the biggest difference in someone’s life. If someone I cared about was diagnosed I would want to know someone is working towards a similar outcome.

My PhD is my foundation and it will mould the way I learn. It may be that after my PhD I continue researching primary bone cancer and I find different ways of testing drugs using all the methods I’ve been taught here. I do hope that this is the case because research in this area is very important.

How does it feel to be part of Team Bones?

I’m so happy because the team at the Bone Cancer Research Trust are so involved and engaged, I like that it is a community. You have a community of researchers working towards a similar goal and I’ve been in touch with the researchers and they have shared information and it’s opened a lot of doors.

I attended the Bone Cancer Conference, the children you see and the stories about amputations makes you think, ‘is that necessary? if we can make a drug more effective, it’s going to make their life easier, it’s going to make their life expectancy better.’ That’s the driver for me, that’s what I’m working towards. That’s it now…time to focus.

We would like to say a special thank you to the University of Bradford for their contribution to the PhD Studentship Grant.