The key to a new way of understanding kidney cancers

16 May 2019, Tim Burton - 

Ms Cissy Yong has won the 2019 TUF Medal for Best Research Proposal. Since 2015 the award has been handed out each year to the best research scholarship application that TUF receives. Cissy is the first woman to win the award.

Cissy’s research aims to find new ways to treat and diagnose kidney cancers by looking at how these cancers metabolise. Her research is potentially ground-breaking and brings together some of the world’s greatest minds on this topic so that she can find new ways to diagnose and treat kidney cancer.

Cancer metabolism is crucial in kidney cancer, but we don’t know enough yet

Metabolism is a complex series of chemical processes that occur within our bodies. It’s how we generate energy from the food we eat and it’s how our bodies make the building blocks for important molecules like DNA. In the same way that our bodies need to metabolise in order to stay alive, so too do cancers.

Metabolism has an impact on the way a tumour develops and on whether or not the cancer becomes aggressive. It’s crucial that we understand this metabolic process, particularly with kidney cancer, where it may be fundamental in cancer initiation and progression. However, we do not know anywhere near enough about this topic just yet. Cissy hopes to change that.

TUF’s investment has led us to a point where we can begin to know more

Cissy is one of TUF’s past Fulbright scholars. That means she was able to travel to Texas in order to learn from a team of world-class scientists at the DeBerardinis Lab, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, Dallas. Whilst she was there she learnt about a novel technique for tracking metabolism directly in patients with cancer.

When a patient who is part of Cissy’s study undergoes a nephrectomy (an operation for kidney cancer), Cissy will use an IV drip to infuse specially labelled nutrients into the patient. Once those nutrients are in the body and taken up by the cancer, she will be able to track their progress in the cancer and learn how the cancer metabolises the nutrients.

This is one of the ways Cissy hopes to track kidney cancer metabolism, but that’s not all she’s doing.

Developing new models of kidney cancer are another crucial part of the research

In collaboration with transplant researchers at the University of Cambridge, Cissy has access to machines that are used to keep organs ‘alive’ when they are being prepared for organ transplantation. More than half of patients with kidney cancer undergo surgery. In this situation after surgery, a patient in Cissy’s study can donate the kidney to her research, which will be put onto the machine. By using this technology, she hopes to develop a better model to study kidney cancers.

The transplant machine simulates the conditions within the body, so that the kidney continues to function as it would within a person. Using this technology, Cissy can begin to experiment on the kidney to see how it interacts with nutrients. It will allow her to be more experimental in her work, as she won’t be risking the health of a patient.

Patients could receive better diagnoses because of Cissy’s work

Currently, diagnosing kidney cancers is not an exact science. The initial tests for kidney cancer are CT scans. Whilst these scans are good at picking up whether there is a tumour, they aren’t perfect at determining whether the tumour is cancerous or not. The only way to tell this accurately is by examining the tissue under a microscope, usually after surgery.

For every 100 people who go forward for surgery for a suspected kidney cancer, up to a third of them prove to have a non-cancerous kidney growth. We could potentially bring that number down significantly with Cissy’s findings. If a patient receives one of her specially labelled nutrients before a scan, it may give doctors a better idea of whether or not the tumour is cancerous.

If Cissy is successful in proving this is possible, it could dramatically reduce the number of people who undergo surgery for suspected kidney cancer. Preventing unnecessary surgeries saves money, creates more bed spaces in hospitals, and is undoubtedly better for any patient.

There could be a whole range of new kidney cancer treatments from this work

Cissy is studying at the University of Cambridge, where they conduct a lot of clinical trials. Cissy can use these trials to reach patients with advanced and metastatic kidney cancers furthering the reach of her findings to patients with a wide range of kidney cancers.  More so, she is uniquely placed to study how cancer metabolism may change with kidney cancer trial drugs.

If Cissy is able to accurately track kidney cancer metabolism, she, or later scientists, might be able to develop new drug treatments based on her findings that target only the cancer, meaning less side effects for patients.

Because cancer metabolism is also an indicator of the cancer’s aggressiveness, Cissy’s research could also provide doctors with a much better understanding of whether a patient’s cancer needs immediate treatment or closer follow up.

Cissy’s research has huge potential

Cissy won the TUF Medal for 2019 because this research has huge potential to transform life for so many patients with one of the UK’s most common and most deadly cancers.

Because Cissy has connections with top scientists and doctors in Cambridge and in Texas, she is in a unique position to bring together some of the world’s leading kidney cancer experts to make her research a resounding success.

If you would like to help us fund more ground-breaking research like Cissy’s, you can donate today. We can’t do it without you.


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