Ali Stunt’s blog. DISCERN Project – Understanding the causes of pancreatic cancer across Europe
In the first of a series of new blogs, PCA founder and ambassador Ali Stunt shares with us the impact she continues to have within the pancreatic cancer community. Since stepping down as CEO, Ali continues to support the work of PCA by representing us as a key opinion leader all over the world, being at the forefront of all research into this disease and new projects as they develop. Ali is also in the 1% of people who survive pancreatic cancer beyond 10 years, so she’s a fierce advocate for pancreatic cancer patients.
On May 14-16th this year, I attended my first face-to-face scientific meeting since the pandemic, and how wonderful it was to be in a room filled with inspiration and loads of innovative and enthusiastic scientists.
Where was I? Well, as part of my role as a Board Member of Pancreatic Cancer Europe and the fact that I am a patient advocate, I was attending the first face-to-face meeting of DISCERN, an EU-funded project as part of the Horizon 2020 cancer grant funding round I am also a part of.
The project, Discovering the Causes of Three Poorly Understood Cancers in Europe (DISCERN), is an ambitious new project that will incorporate large-scale cancer biorepositories and novel exposomics techniques to understand the causes of renal, pancreatic, and colorectal cancer in Europe. It will also aim to help explain the geographical distribution of these cancer types, including their high incidence in central and Eastern Europe.
There are various Work Packages from 1-8 that are looking at external factors that may contribute to the development of cancer (known as the external episome) and internal factors, such as the role of bacteria (known as the internal episome). They are also investigating the role of genomics (the study of our genes and the interactions between different genes and the person’s environment) to try to understand the role of carcinogens (the potential to cause cancer).
There is also work to ensure we can obtain the necessary tissue and cell samples through varying biobanks in Europe and the study of circulating proteomics (proteins expressed by the tumours that get to the bloodstream) and proteins found in tissue.
A lot of this work will need to be properly analysed to define and understand the data not only from each study but across all the different studies. This is why we need the capacity to manage big data and the integration of such data across all the scientific workstream – so there is a group of very clever statisticians and mathematicians working on just that.
So, what is my role? Well, I am part of Work Package 7 – where we are there to ensure that the findings of the studies are communicated to the public in language they can understand and in formats they will be familiar with. The scientists themselves are very clever and interesting people and they have a true passion for their subject – something which was born out of the 2 -day conference. However, they themselves will readily admit that they are not always good at explaining their science to non-scientists!
So, over the course of this 5-year project, I will be part of a panel that will help these lovely scientists disseminate their findings to the public but also, if we find there are developments that can change policy or procedures that will afford earlier diagnosis or indeed prevention of these cancers, including pancreatic, then we can ensure that the right policymakers hear what needs to change.
The goal of DISCERN is to uncover novel causes for each of these three cancer types and to provide the critical evidence base required to develop new prevention strategies for these cancers in Europe.