It’s been another busy year for us here at Cancer Research UK, and we’ve taken great strides forward in a number of areas. Below we’ve compiled a selection of our biggest achievements in 2013, from life-saving research discoveries to important developments in policy and prevention.
We receive no money from the Government for our research, and none of this would be possible without the generosity of our supporters. Thank you, and a merry Christmas, from all of us.
- We found yet more evidence that using sunbeds just isn’t worth it. Of 400 sunbeds we tested across England, nine in ten emitted ultraviolet radiation that exceeded British and EU standards. This could more than double the average risk of skin cancer compared to spending the same amount of time in the Mediterranean midday sun.
- It’s been a year of big changes for the NHS – arguably the biggest since it was founded in 1948. As the mammoth NHS restructure came into view (see April below), MPs and Lords met at the beginning of the year to talk about how the NHS can promote research, at the meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Medical Research. We were there contributing to the discussion, and reported back.
- We made important progress in uncovering why the UK falls behind some developed countries in survival rates for breast, lung, bowel and ovarian cancer. The International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership (ICBP), a venture that we’re coordinating, published in-depth analysis about symptom awareness in different countries.
- Our scientists found that a drug already used to treat lung cancer could also stop drug-resistant skin cancer cells from growing. Resistance to treatment is a serious problem and this important study opens up the possibility of combining established drugs to tackle it.
- We sent MPs in Westminster an empty cigarette packet to hammer home the message of our ‘Setting the Standard’ campaign, demonstrating just how slickly designed and attractive many of today’s cigarette packets are.
- Our researchers revealed that a scan that creates a virtual 3D image of the bowel is an effective and less invasive alternative to the standard colonoscopy test to investigate possible bowel cancer symptoms.
- Our scientists in Cambridge shed new light on the cellular ‘family tree’ that makes up normal, healthy breast tissue, with important implications for understanding how different types of breast cancer form.
- Using techniques originally designed to spot distant galaxies, our scientists teamed up with astronomers to help spot aggressive breast cancers.
- A team at our London Research Institute discovered the origins behind a form of genetic ‘chaos’ commonly seen in bowel cancer cells. These chaotic chromosomes can make tumours particularly resistant to treatment, so understanding their origins open up new possibilities to tackle the disease.
- Research from our scientists showed how spotting DNA in a patient’s blood could offer a way to monitor the progression of breast cancer.
- The first invitations for the public to take part in Bowel Scope Screening were sent out. Our scientist led the trial of this test, and we called on the Government to introduce it into the national screening programme. It could save up to 3,000 lives a year and prevent up to a third of bowel cancer cases in those screened.
- A huge research effort involving 1,000 scientists – including our own – from 100 international research groups revealed 80 new genetic variations that increase the risk of breast, ovarian and prostate cancer.
- The biggest re-organisation of the NHS in its history came into effect following the introduction of the Health and Social Care Act in 2012. We’re working with the NHS in a number of areas to make sure cancer services keep improving through the transition.
- We revealed the potential of ‘liquid biopsies’ as a simple test to track the evolution of several types of cancer. The test picks up tumour DNA in the bloodstream and could provide a less invasive way to help doctors select the best treatments and monitor a patient’s response.
- Our scientists from Cambridge discovered a new type of bowel cancer, charting unexplored territory for the disease. This new sub-type is resistant to current, targeted treatments, so isolating it is an important discovery – allowing researchers to focus on what makes it different and pinpoint weaknesses for future therapies.
- Our Chief Clinician, Peter Johnson, gave evidence to the House of Commons Science and Technology committee on research in the NHS. We have a great environment for clinical research in the UK, but reducing the regulatory burden on researchers could help make it easier to set up new studies and to run existing ones.
- We showed that the breast cancer drug tamoxifen could also be used to reduce the chances of some women developing the disease. This important finding illustrates how continued research, even into older drugs, can provide new ways to prevent and treat cancer.
- We found that a collection of genetic ‘fine tuners’ control how the body’s immune system responds to a certain type of breast cancer.
- Despite earlier optimism, the Queen’s Speech – in which the Government lays out the legislation it will pursue over the next year – failed to include key public health measures such as standard packs. But plenty of MPs and Peers showed their support for standardised tobacco packaging in the parliamentary debates on the Speech, so we redoubled our efforts to convince the Government to introduce this life-saving measure.
- We discovered how a molecular ‘triage nurse’ teams up with other partners inside cancer cells to help them repair damaged DNA and avoid dying.
- More news on tamoxifen – we found that taking the breast cancer drug for 10 years rather than the recommended five halves the risk of the disease returning.
- We took a step forward in developing a non-invasive technique that could help doctors to diagnose childhood brain tumours more accurately before surgery, as well as helping them choose the best way to treat them.
- Our scientists revealed how the shape-shifting ability of skin cancer cells allows them to squeeze through gaps as they spread. And more of our research focussing on the different ways in which cancer cells move opens up potential opportunities for targeting the disease.
- The organisation that regulates medicines in the UK, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA), announced that it would licence e-cigarettes. We supported improved regulation and our report looking at the key issues surrounding e-cigarettes and Nicotine Containing Products – commonly known as NCPs – showed that while these products are promising, there are still a number of unanswered questions.
- In an innovative drive to involve the public in cancer research, we gathered together scientists, gamers and designers as part of our first ever GameJam – they were asked to develop ideas for an engaging and simple smartphone game to help the public analyse cancer data.
- We were really pleased to see the Chancellor, George Osborne MP, recognise the vital part science plays in both the health and economic growth of the nation by committing to protect the science budget in the Government’s spending review.
- Our scientists in Manchester defined 60 gene faults in the most common form of lung cancer. They used the latest tools to focus in on which of these faults accelerate lung cancer cell growth, offering important clues how to target these faults in the future.
- Following disappointing confirmation that the Government was delaying legislation on standardised tobacco packaging, we launched an email campaign enabling our supporters to urge David Cameron to ‘let Parliament decide’, as well as working closely with Peers and other groups.
- Meanwhile, the Scottish Government announced it would press on with its own standard packaging law regardless of the decision in Westminster.
- Our report evaluating the impact of the Government’s £23m investment in radiotherapy showed that access to advanced forms of this life-saving treatment is improving, but we won’t stop there as even more needs to be done to keep up with increasing demand.
- We launched a revolutionary study called TRACERx that will plot the evolution of lung tumours in real time. In a world first, our researchers will track the genetic changes that drive tumour development and resistance to treatment.
- Our researchers turned one of cancer’s strengths into a weakness by blocking a molecule that allows cancer cells to survive and multiply when oxygen is scarce.
- We took the difficult decision to withdraw from the Government’s Responsibility Deal following several disappointing failures to introduce crucial, evidence-based public health policies.
- We launched our groundbreaking BEACON trial, looking to define the ‘gold standard’ for treating children with neuroblastoma whose cancer has returned after therapy.
- Research from our scientists in Warwick and Leicester, focussing on part of a cell’s internal skeleton, could provide better ways to block how cancer cells multiply.
- We unveiled a new website giving access to important local cancer statistics. Searchable by postcode, it’s a useful tool to help identify key issues in cancer care and public health.
- We discovered how a gene linked to the repair of damaged DNA could protect against ovarian cancer.
- One of our researchers – Dr Simon Boulton – won the prestigious Paul Marks cancer research prize for his work looking at how cells deal with damaged DNA.
- Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed plans to invest an additional £400m in the Cancer Drugs Fund, which provides patients in England with access to life-extending drugs not yet routinely available on the NHS. This secures funding up to 2016, and while we were pleased to see this for the short term, we also feel that it’s vital a longer-term solution is found.
- We and our Cancer Campaign Ambassadors went to the Liberal Democrat and Labour party conferences, highlighting our key policy priorities such as standard tobacco packs. The Labour conference was marked by outrage at the stand of tobacco giant Philip Morris, showing once again the tobacco industry’s desperation to prevent standard packs becoming a reality.
- A DNA detangling molecule emerged as an important protector against cancer. It unwinds DNA so that it can be copied, and our researchers have discovered how faults in this molecule could lead to several types of cancer.
- We announced a £35 million funding boost for specialised cancer imaging centres. This will allow our researchers to look at tumours in increasing depth and detail, helping to diagnose and treat cancer more effectively.
- Professor Tony Kouzarides – one of our researchers from Cambridge – was awarded the prestigious Gibb Fellowship for his huge contribution to our understanding of how genes get switched on and off and what this means for cancer.
- Our brilliant campaigners continued their hard work at the Conservative party conference in Manchester. The Prime Minister visited our stand where we showcased our achievements, including our website that MPs can use to find statistics for their local area.
- Researchers, politicians and clinicians from across Wales came together in Cardiff to discuss ways to diagnose cancer earlier. We heard about the huge impact earlier diagnosis can have on cancer survival, and the challenges Wales faces to achieve it. Plans to capitalise on the momentum from this session are in the works, so watch this space for more details in the future.
- Scientists from our London Research Institute revealed how blocking the way two important cancer molecules stick to each other could offer a new way to treat lung cancer.
- We pinpointed a molecule that could be used to distinguish aggressive and non-aggressive prostate tumours. Knowing the difference between prostate tumours is vital in selecting those that need immediate treatment and others that can be safely monitored.
- Scientists from our Beatson Institute in Glasgow discovered how the way our cells age could provide useful clues to understand cancers that develop later in life.
- We launched a hard-hitting video to expose the tactics the tobacco industry uses to recruit new, young customers. Tobacco branding isn’t the only reason that children start smoking, but putting cigarettes in standardised packaging will give kids one less reason to start.
- Later that month the message finally got through as the Coalition Government gave the strongest indication yet that it’s on the way to introducing standardised tobacco packaging. Following an independent review, it could become law by 2015.
- Changes to EU legislation on research data could put lives at risk by making some studies and clinical trials that rely on patient data illegal. We called on the UK Government and EU institutions to ensure the draft regulations are changed to protect vital research.
- We were very pleased to hear that the Be Clear on Cancer lung cancer campaign was responsible for around a 10 per cent increase in lung cancer detection. The powerful message enabled these cases to be detected earlier – a crucial step to ensure treatment is as effective as possible.
- Our scientists released exciting results from an important clinical trial showing that that the breast cancer drug anastrozole halves the chance of breast cancer developing in high risk women.
Thank you to each and every one of our supporters. None of this would have been possible without you, and we wish you a very merry Christmas and a happy new year.
Image credits: lung cancer cells (Feb), lung cancer cell (July) and breast cancer cell (Dec) are courtesy of our London Research Institute (LRI) EM unit. Dividing cells (Aug) are courtesy of John Marshall of the Tumour Biology Lab and our LRI EM unit and the tamoxifen image (April) is from Wikimedia Commons.