Acing it: The ambitious early career researchers driving progress in cancer early detection

Seung Hyun Lee, Elspeth Davies, Hamish MacGregor and Lucie Gourmet

In 2019, we launched our flagship early detection initiative, the International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED), to address the challenges in this critical area of unmet clinical need. Now entering its third year, the initiative is helping to drive the expansion of the early detection research community. We meet four inspiring ACED PhD students carrying out research that could transform the ways in which we diagnose cancer in the future.

Detecting cancer at an early stage has huge potential to save lives, and while we’ve certainly made promising steps forward, meaningful progress over the years has been limited. Compared to more established fields of research, the study of early cancer biology has been historically underfunded with very few scientists and institutions prioritising it as an area of expertise.

We think mankind deserves better, and, as one of the world’s largest cancer research funders with extensive connections in the field of early detection research, we’re uniquely placed to make a huge difference. That’s why in 2019, thanks to our community of supporters, we established the International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED) – a £55 million partnership between six world-renowned institutes and organisations. They are Cancer Research UK, the University of Cambridge, University College London and the University of Manchester in the UK, and the Canary Center at Stanford University and the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University in the US. Through this major transatlantic alliance, scientists are working together at the forefront of technological innovation to translate research into realistic ways to improve cancer diagnosis. Importantly, their work aims to be implementable into health systems, so that it can meaningfully benefit people with cancer.

Key to this is strengthening and expanding the early detection community by attracting the brightest early career researchers in the field. But not only that, we must also train and retain researchers by developing world-leading training and career development standards globally. As such, the alliance has established its own PhD programme that will enable students to benefit from ACED’s unique structure and expertise. These students are co-supervised between centres, spending time at each, and will become the next generation of multidisciplinary experts in the field of early detection research.

Now two years old, the alliance is at an exciting juncture and starting to appoint these promising early career researchers. We spoke to four of them to hear about why it’s an inspiring time to be working in early detection research.

Seung Hyun Lee

ACED clinical PhD student at the Cancer Research UK Manchester InstituteElspeth in her graduation robes

ACED PhD student at the University of Cambridge

“My ACED colleagues are often surprised when I tell them that I’m a social anthropologist. I study the social, historical and technological contexts in which diseases – or risk of diseases – are diagnosed. I trace how people live with these diagnoses, having been transformed from ‘people’ into ‘patients’. My project involves considering what the social costs and benefits of new diagnostic technologies might be.

Having been diagnosed with an early stage melanoma during my teenage years, the alliance’s efforts to enact a ‘stage shift’ in cancer diagnosis were particularly intriguing to me. My work considers the factors that have prompted this international move towards early detection. Due to my own experiences, I’m interested in how people live following an early cancer diagnosis, and in exploring the social navigation of lives lived ‘at risk’.

Instead of using standardised questionnaires or surveys where researchers might – overtly or unwittingly – prejudge what is relevant, anthropologists aim to listen instead to what matters to the people we study, and to consider their experiences in context. While cancer research scientists tend to detach people’s social worlds from their objects of study – such as cells – as part of being objective, social anthropologists seek to reattach these cells to the bodies, people and social worlds in which they exist. Doing so is important for understanding key issues in the field of early detection, including health inequalities: in other words, whose cancers are diagnosed early, and why as well as how this is the case.”

Hamish MacGregor

ACED PhD student at the University of CambridgeMore on this topic

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