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The NCRI Cancer Conference is in full swing

The NCRI conference began in earnest yesterday afternoon, with the presentation of a Cancer Research UK ‘lifetime achievement’ award to The Institute of Cancer Research’s Professor Chris Marshall.

Professor Marshall has been funded by Cancer Research UK and our predecessor, The Cancer Research Campaign, for around 30 years. He treated us to a selection of his ‘greatest hits’, focusing on his work in cell signalling – the molecular signals that ensure cells know when to multiply, die and move – and how this goes wrong in cancer.

Looking back over the past three decades, he highlighted how we’ve moved in a remarkably short time from knowing virtually nothing about the faulty genes and molecules that drive cancer to having a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips. Many of these molecules are involved in cell signalling, and there are a number of exciting potential drugs in the pipeline that target them.

Although there are many challenges ahead – such as how to identify which patients might benefit from specific targeted treatments (a recurring theme at this year’s conference), which combinations to use them in, and how to overcome the problem of resistance to the drugs, Professor Marshall’s talk highlighted the benefits that studying cell signalling has already brought, and how his research – and that of many others around the world – is leading us closer to beating cancer.

Stem cells

Following Professor Marshall was an intriguing (and at times breathtaking) talk from Netherlands cancer expert Professor Hans Clevers, whose research team studies the stem cells in our guts. These cells are responsible for constantly renewing the gut lining, and are thought to play a key role in bowel cancer.

Professor Clevers’ team have been slowly unravelling the biology of these fascinating cells – including discovering the role of a protein called Lgr5 and of special supporting cells called Paneth cells – by literally making gut stem cells glow different colours and following the way they move around over time. One of his slides, showing a multicoloured image of red, blue, green and yellow fluorescent gut cells, all originating from different individual stem cells, drew ‘firework noises’ of appreciative oohs and aahs from the crowd.

There’s an excellent short video of Professor Clevers’ work on the Hubrecht Institute website:

Preventing cancer with drugs

Finally on Sunday Professor John Potter, a cancer statistician from the University of Washington, took us on a tour of the results of several decades of research on chemoprevention – the idea that using supplements like vitamin C and E, selenium and folate can prevent cancer.

According to Professor Potter, these studies have been less than successful, and in some cases even increasing the risk of cancer among people on the studies. The main reason for this, he thinks, is the huge difficulty in conducting high-quality, large scale trials of ‘healthy’ people. In reality, the population being studied tends to be so diverse and complex that it’s very difficult to generate meaningful results.

In concluding, he showed a table with three columns. On the right, he’d listed many substances that had been studied that showed no benefits, or even harm. In the middle were things like aspirin – where there’s evidence of a cancer-protective effect, especially amongst high-risk individuals, but questions over the overall benefit (for example, aspirin can increase the risk of bleeding from the gut). And on the left, under the heading ‘definite benefit’ was… nothing.

In Professor Potter’s view, the only clear cut, proven strategies for reducing the risk of cancer are the same old things we already know about: exercise, healthy diet, low alcohol consumption and not smoking. The idea of a pill or potion that can prevent cancer in the wider population is, at least at this stage, still science fiction.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a round-up of today’s events at the conference – at the time of posting there have been illuminating sessions on personalised medicine, cancer survival, drug resistance, epigenetics and more… watch this space.

Henry & Kat