Case study

Researching how HPV causes oropharyngeal cancer

Our molecular biologists are currently working on a funded research project with an independent laboratory, to try to understand more about how Human Papillomavirus (HPV) causes oropharyngeal cancer: a cancer that starts in the middle part of the throat.

Aims of the project

HPV causes cervical cancer, but it is now known to cause approximately 75% of oropharyngeal carcinomas (OPCs) of the tonsil and base of the tongue. The prevalence of HPV-positive OPC is predicted to exceed the prevalence of HPV-positive cervical cancers this year (2021), yet scientists do not fully understand how HPV can lead to OPC.

In an effort to try to address this knowledge gap, HistologiX, an independent laboratory based in Nottingham, is teaming up with researchers from our Human Sciences Research Centre and a newly-recruited MPhil student, on a 12-month research project. This is being part-funded by the ERDF Productivity through Innovation programme

The study, which started in March 2021, aims to better understand the process by which a HPV infection can cause oropharyngeal cancer. Specifically, it will look at the tonsil, because this is known to be where HPV infections establish and where cancer develops.

Using novel techniques

HistologiX provides immunohistochemistry, digital pathology and image analysis solutions to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. Researchers will be using the company's novel histological and immunofluorescent techniques, which should enable them to more precisely identify the presence and location of multiple biomarkers (signs of a disease) within tonsil tissue samples.

As well as providing data which could inform the clinical prognosis of HPV-OPC, and influence treatment strategies, the company hopes the research will also enable it to offer better multiplex fluorescent immunohistochemistry services to its customers, which could improve drug development programmes. 

"Quote from Barbara at HistologiX, ideally about the novel approaches being used and the value of working with the University"

Joining forces

The research team at the University is being led by Dr Elizabeth Marsh, a cellular and molecular biologist who has ten years’ experience investigating high-risk HPV infections. 

“I have a very strong molecular background and [Histologix] are very image-based, looking at tissues specifically…together those two areas of expertise bring a new approach, and a very complementary approach, to answering the question as to how HPV causes head and neck cancer.”

— Dr Elizabeth Marsh, Lead researcher from the University

Dr Marsh will support the MPhil student for this project, Rebecca Hanwell, a BSc (Hons) Biomedical Sciences graduate, who has worked for the NHS as a biomedical scientist for the last three and a half years. Rebecca will divide her time between HistologiX and the University.  

Hear from Dr Elizabeth Marsh

Hear Dr Elizabeth Marsh from the University, explain more about the project and the benefits of working with HistologiX.

An interview with Dr Elizabeth Marsh, about her research project with HistologiX.

View Interview with Dr Elizabeth Marsh video transcript

Get funding for your own industrial research

We are still offering part-funded research projects like this to local SMEs, through our Productivity through Innovation programme. Do you have an idea but need help and funding to get it off the ground?

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