Newcastle researchers 1,000 mile at home challenge to fight cancer

Cancer research scientists in Newcastle are joining forces to carry on the fight against the disease as part of the Race for Life at Home challenge.

In these unprecedented times, members of the Cancer Research UK Newcastle Drug Discovery Unit have established ways that their life-saving research into new cancer treatments can continue whilst complying with the COVID-19 restrictions. At the same time they continue to find creative ways to fundraise.

Cancer Research UK Newcastle Drug Discovery Unit is an integrated team of cancer biologists, pharmacologists, structural biologists and medicinal chemists who develop new, differentiated, small molecule therapies for cancer patients.

Newcastle drug discovery projects have contributed to the discovery of two cancer medicines already being used to treat patients and two other drugs currently under evaluation in clinical trials.

As well as their lab coats, researchers are donning trainers and bike helmets to complete a 1000-mile relay challenge to raise vital funds for Cancer Research UK, all within the current rules of social distancing.

Fundraising like this is crucial now more than ever, with Cancer Research UK saying it expects to see its fundraising income decline by up to 25 per cent in the next financial year as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus outbreak has already affected many of Cancer Research UK’s key fundraising activities, which all raise money for life-saving research, including Race for Life Newcastle, and it has temporarily closed its network of 600 high street shops across the UK.

But undeterred, the research community in the city are vowing to carry on and complete a 1,000 mile relay in support of the newly launched Race for Life at Home challenge helping to raise money and inspire others to sign up.

All this week, around 50 researchers will run, walk or cycle the equivalent distance of a circuit all five of the Cancer Research UK Drug Discovery Units.

Virtually travelling from Newcastle to Glasgow, Manchester, London, Cambridge and back to Newcastle, a total distance of around 900 miles, all while observing social distancing rules.

One of those taking part in the challenge is Dr Suzannah Harnor, a Senior Research Associate at the CRUK Newcastle Drug Discovery Unit, at Newcastle University.

Her work involves hands on medicinal chemistry, designing and synthesising molecules for cancer targets in areas of unmet medical need that one day may become new cancer treatments.

Suzannah said: “We’re all going to be spending a lot of time indoors this spring so it feels good to take back some control and plan something positive to help fundraise for more research and to help people who are going through cancer right now.

“The journey is a total of about 900 miles, depending on the route, so we will aim for 1,000 miles just to be sure. We plan to do this over the course of a week and will be tracking our progress on the Strava app.

“The number of researchers that have signed up shows just how strong a community we are in Newcastle and how keen we are to support life-saving research, which we are so proud to be part of.”

Professor Mike Waring, Chemistry lead for the Drug Discovery Programme at the Centre for Cancer, Newcastle University, added: “The research community wants to do all it can to help fundraising during this really challenging time.

“COVID-19 is having a devastating effect on the nation, both personally and economically and it is vital, more than ever, that medical research continues, both in directly tackling the threat from the virus but also in continuing to address our other major healthcare challenges of which cancer remains one of the most significant.

“Cancer Research UK funds nearly 50% of the cancer research in the UK, so supporting this is more important than ever to ensure progress doesn’t stop. We appreciate that the current crisis has caused financial difficulties for many people, but we continue to rely on the generosity of the public where possible and are incredibly touched by their continued support.

“We hope that our activity will raise awareness of the new fundraising activities and that people will get behind us and take on their own Race for Life at Home challenges.”

COVID-19 response
At the same time as fundraising the team are also doing what it can to help with the COVID-19 response using skills and talent to help.

The team are using fragment-based drug design to contribute compounds that inhibit the COVID-19 main protease, an initiative instigated and led by Diamond Light Source. Targeting this protein has potential to lead to drugs that inhibit replication of the virus and members of the group have volunteered to help with the national COVID-19 testing campaign.

Lisa Millett, Cancer Research UK’s spokesperson for Newcastle, said: “At a time when it feels like everything is at a standstill, one of the things that hasn’t stopped is cancer.

“Our priority as a charity is ensuring that people affected by cancer are getting the support they need right now. To see our own researchers stepping up to this challenge is really humbling and I’m sure it will inspire many others to join them and take on their own Race for Life at Home activity because they don’t want to see the charity lose out on vital funding.

“We appreciate that the current situation has resulted in financial uncertainty for many people, so people should only contribute sponsor money if they feel able to.”

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