Meet the ACED PhD students in Cambridge tackling the challenges of early detection

The International Alliance for Cancer Early Detection (ACED), launched in 2019, is a flagship early detection initiative which addresses 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.

ACED is a £55 million partnership between six world-renowned institutes and organisations; 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. The alliance has established its own PhD programme that will enable students to benefit from ACED’s unique structure and expertise.

We spoke to two ACED PhD students who are currently at the University of Cambridge, carrying out research that could transform the ways in which we diagnose cancer in the future:

Elspeth Davies

Elspeth Davies

“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

Hamish MacGregor

“I’m interested in the application of physical and mathematical principles to biological systems. Through the ACED PhD programme, I discovered a fascinating collaborative project between two labs in Cambridge. My project focuses on somatic mutations in the blood – these mutations are acquired after you’re born, rather than being inherited from your parents. Somatic mutations can cause cells to divide more frequently, leading to populations of cells that expand and take over. I’m investigating the dynamics of this process in young people and am seeking to understand how it interacts with our existing understanding of genetic cancer risk, hopefully leading to more accurate assessments of cancer susceptibility.

Since the start of my project, I’ve been collaborating with colleagues in the US. Access to data from different global populations is vital for epidemiological research, and the international nature of ACED should encourage this. Although COVID-19 has limited travel opportunities, I’m still hoping to make it to the US at some point during my studies.

I’m very grateful for the philanthropic support the programme has received. My research relies heavily on data from large and detailed studies, and with DNA sequencing costs falling continually it’s clear that money donated now can go further than ever in helping to improve cancer outcomes.”

You can find out more about the Alliance, and the ACED PhD programme, and other ACED PhD students by reading the full article on the CRUK website:

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