UK project to tackle secondary bone tumours

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A new UK bioengineering project will explore new ways to treat secondary bone tumours that often accompany stage 4 cancers where the disease spreads to the spine.

A vertebra where a tumour has created a hole in the bone severely weakening this structure (Credit: University of Leeds)

Known as metastatic bone disease, the tumours spread from primary cancers elsewhere in the body, and the condition is strongly associated with breast cancer. The tumours can affect vertebrae, causing them to weaken and fracture, leaving patients in severe pain. However, in many instances, quality of life is paramount to the patient, with major surgery not an appropriate option.

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The collaboration, featuring the University of Leeds, Imperial College London and UCL, will develop an alternative treatment based on developing new imaging and modelling techniques that will enable clinicians to predict which patients are at a high risk of a vertebra fracturing.  Using minimally invasive surgery, patients could then be fitted with custom-built implants to prevent spinal fracturing.

“The problem facing doctors is they have no way of knowing which of the spinal vertebrae is going to collapse,” explained research lead Professor Richard Hall, an expert in medical engineering at the University of Leeds. “But when that happens, patients may require major surgery which involves a lengthy period of rehabilitation.

“Our approach is to intervene by developing new techniques and equipment that will prevent spinal fractures, crucially helping to maintain a patient’s quality of life at a time when they may be terminally ill.”

Titled Oncological Engineering: A new concept in the treatment of bone metastases, the project has attracted £7 million in research funding, including a £5.6 million grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Within five years, the research team hopes to have developed new techniques and materials that will revolutionise the treatment of bone metastases.

“This funding will enable us to significantly expand our work combining computational modelling with cutting-edge imaging to better understand how cancers grow and interact with surrounding tissues,” said co-investigator Professor Rebecca Shipley, from  UCL’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

“We are excited to use these multidisciplinary frameworks to understand vertebra fracture risk and ultimately help to improve quality of life for cancer patients.”