Cancer Research UK’s work is helping people to beat cancer. Our scientific research into new treatments has, over the years, contributed to 19 of the top 20 cancer drugs used to treat people worldwide.
We fund around 4,800 scientists, doctors and nurses in a network of universities, institutes and hospitals across the UK.
But it might not be simple to picture just how, exactly, the generous donations of our supporters go towards developing the latest therapies.
After recent articles in the media (for example, The Observer and The Independent) talking about our network of Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres (ECMCs) it seems like a good time to highlight how we provide patients with new opportunities to participate in clinical trials for the latest and most innovative cancer treatments.
What are ECMCs?
As we wrote last year, Cancer Research UK and the Departments of Health of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland jointly fund a network of 19 ECMCs across the UK, providing £35million over five years to 2012.
The centres run clinical trials to bridge the gap between something that looks promising in the lab to a treatment that can be given to patients. This speeds up a process that can often be a slow and expensive step in developing new cancer treatments.
The patients taking part in these early trials have usually already received standard treatments, such as conventional radiotherapy and chemotherapy, but these treatments have been unable to help them. As a result, they have limited treatment options and may have months and sometimes only weeks to live.
For some patients, going on a trial might help to prolong their lives. But volunteers are told that the treatments are unlikely to help them personally and may have unpredictable side effects.
But if results from these trials are positive, it can help others by speeding the development of promising new treatments.
The early phase trials run at ECMCs can also allow identification of new biomarker molecules to ‘flag’ the presence of certain types of cancer – which can help doctors spot at a molecular level if a cancer is returning or how well a treatment is working.
And thanks to their unique structure, and the way they plug into the NHS, we’re already seeing exciting developments coming through the network’s pipeline.
Different areas of focus
Each ECMC focuses on cutting edge research into different fields of cancer medicine – from drug discovery to radiotherapy to cancer imaging. For example, researchers in Manchester are testing a type of treatment called radioimmunotherapy – a more accurate way of delivering radiotherapy directly to tumours. The researchers have found that patients given the treatment have fewer side effects – such as hair loss, sickness and bowel upsets – and early results are promising.
And scientists at the ECMC in Cardiff are investigating new ways to treat acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) by testing new drugs tailored to individual patients’ genetic make-up.
AML can vary from person to person because of slightly different faults in different genes – so the team identifying potential drugs to treat different variations of the disease. The group is analysing the genes of the people with AML entering clinical trials, and measuring how well people with different faults in their genes respond to specific new treatments.
Meanwhile, researchers at the Leicester ECMC are investigating whether compounds found in our food could be developed into cancer treatments – indeed, we’ve already written about some of this team’s work.
The Leicester team is running an early-stage trial of 30 people with advanced bowel cancer to test whether capsules containing curcumin – found in the curry spice turmeric – can help to shrink tumours.
Making a difference
The ECMC network is unique, and we are already seeing some great successes.
One example is Lancashire grandfather-of-three Mel Jones, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2007. He was offered a place on an early clinical trial of a new drug called ibritumomab (Zevalin), being run at the Manchester ECMC. Zevalin was developed by Cancer Research UK scientists at the Paterson Institute for Cancer Research, also in Manchester.
Since his treatment, Mel is doing well, and he hasn’t experienced many of the unpleasant side effects – including hair loss – that are often associated with chemotherapy.
Mel’s story is just one example of the hope being brought to people with cancer across the UK. We hope that the new treatments being developed and tested at the ECMCs will lead to many more success stories in the future – and many more lives saved.
Emma Rigby, Cancer Research UK Press Officer