N8 Lifesavers: University of Sheffield discovers new cancer treatment


Professor Thomas Helleday discovered a new treatment concept to prevent cancer cells from repairing

The pioneering therapy, discovered by Professor Thomas Helleday and his team from the Department of Oncology and Metabolism, is helping to treat cancer patients across the world.

n8 lifesavers uni of sheffield cancer

The concept involves PARP inhibitors to treat cancer in patients with a specific DNA repair defect, something commonly seen in hereditary ovarian and breast cancer.

His research was translated into a new approach for killing tumour cells and treating cancer, called the synthetic lethal approach, described as one of the most exciting prospects for future cancer treatment.

In this case, cancer cells defective in homologous recombination become reliant on the PARP enzyme while normal cells do not need it. This method means the cancer is killed and the adverse effects for patients are limited.
The PARP inhibitor treatment concept is life saving for patients carrying recombination defective cancers, such as those mutated in BRCA1 or BRCA2.

This discovery was patent protected and licensed to a pharmaceutical company and, following successful clinical trials, there are currently four PARP inhibitor drugs approved in the US and EU to treat breast or ovarian cancer using this novel concept.

There are now lots of clinical trials exploring how PARP inhibitors could be used to treat a wide range of other cancers – including pancreatic cancer, which currently has a survival rate of less than 1% for people living 10 years or more after diagnosis in England and Wales.


“Currently our group is focusing on identifying novel targets for cancer therapy and making new stunning discoveries that we hope will make as big difference as the PARP inhibitors have made”

“Following the success of PARP inhibitors, we have progressed novel treatments all the way to clinical trials that we are hopeful will also make a difference to save cancer lives.”

“In Sheffield, we are now pioneering a novel concept for personalised cancer medicine where we, from a small live cancer sample, predict which drugs will work best, using advanced imaging and artificial intelligence”

Professor Thomas Helleday


Made at Uni, following on from their launch campaign highlighting the impact universities have had on people, lives and communities, released their brand new campaign, ‘Lifesavers’ in May 2019. This campaign highlights 100 universities across the UK who are saving lives and keeping us healthy through key research.