New tools to diagnose and treat liver cancer

Image of the human liver

Liver cancer is the most common type of cancer in Egypt due to the prevalence of associated conditions such as Hepatitis C, obesity and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), all of which are steadily rising in developing countries. Poor understanding of how the disease develops in people affected by these chronic conditions is a major obstacle to preventing liver cancer.

Researchers from Egypt and the UK are trying to identify new diagnostic and prognostic biomarkers – molecules, genes, or characteristics that indicate the presence or severity of disease in the body – to halt the progression of the disease.

The team used an innovative 3D model for the first time to model the interaction between liver cancer tumours and stromal cells (connective tissue cells) expressing the SULF2 gene. They found a link between presence of SULF2 and severity of disease, indicating its use as a potential biomarker. The results have led to a collaboration with Cancer Research UK and Medimmune Alliance to develop a diagnostic/therapeutic anti-SULF2 antibody, which could improve the life expectancy of more than half of liver cancer patients.

Nowadays, immune therapy is widely and successfully used to treat many chronic diseases including cancer. Understanding the immune landscape of chronic liver diseases is the cornerstone to prevent and treat liver cancer. The team has developed and characterised a new mouse model to understand the biology of liver cancer associated with fatty liver disease. This model helps to identify novel immune therapeutic targets that can be blocked to stop cancer development.

The researchers now want to focus on investigating preventative strategies and strengthening the research capacity in Egypt by setting up a basic science laboratory to tackle the major chronic diseases among the Egyptian population, with liver cancer at the heart of the research process.

Prevention is not only about prohibiting disease from occurring, it is also about establishing a stronger research environment that can effectively support our efforts to beat the disease. This is what we want to achieve in Egypt.

Dr Marco Zaki, Minia University, Egypt

This project won the UK-Egypt Newton Prize 2020.

Watch a short film about the project on YouTube. 

The liver microenvironment – a driver of hepatocellular carcinoma

Project leads: Professors Fiona Oakley and Helen Reeves, Newcastle University, UK and Dr Marco Zaki, Minia University, Egypt

Delivery partners: British Council, UK and the Cultural Affairs and Missions Sector, Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Egypt

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