The number of people affected by cancer in the UK can be hard to comprehend. More than 300,000 new cases are diagnosed each year, and one in two of us born after 1960 will develop the disease in our lifetime.
But the global statistics are even more mind-boggling. More than 14 million people worldwide are given the devastating news they have cancer each year, and this will rise to more than 23 million by 2030. Cancer also claims more than eight million lives each year around the world. To put this number into context, it’s roughly the equivalent of losing the entire population of London to cancer every year.
Even though we’re the largest independent funder of cancer research worldwide, this is not a fight we can win single-handedly. We need to join hands with partners from all four corners of the earth to tackle it together.
So to mark World Cancer Day, we’re taking a look at how our discoveries over the decades is helping cancer patients all over the world right now. We’ll also delve into the research we’re doing in partnership with other countries to make the future brighter for cancer patients across the globe.
1. Preventing cancer
Our research is at the heart of understanding what increases a person’s risk of cancer – vital in finding ways of preventing it.
We first issued a warning linking skin cancer to the sun’s UV rays in 1935, and were the first to provide proof that smoking is a major cause of lung cancer.
We’ve helped support one of the world’s largest population studies – called EPIC – that spans 10 European countries and has been uncovering links between diet, lifestyle and environment and cancer.
And it’s not just a matter of personal choices. Proving these links – and running powerful campaigns over the years – have helped us influence decisions made at the very highest level of power. It’s been key to help Governments across the world to introduce laws helping to protect people from cancer – for example through tobacco control, sun-bed regulations and banning the use of asbestos.
But tobacco still kills almost six million people worldwide each year, with nearly eight in 10 of these deaths in low- and middle-income countries.
And with smoking rates still going up in many of these countries, tobacco-related deaths will continue to rise for years to come.
So along with partners in America and Australia (and UICC), we’re supporting a global alliance called the International Consortium for Action and Research on Tobacco (ICART), to help countries that need it most carry out local research into the effects of tobacco use and sharing ways they can introduce control measures.
2. Uncovering the infectious causes of cancer
While you can’t ‘catch cancer’, you can pick up an infection that increases your risk of developing some types of the disease.
The number of infection-linked cancer deaths in the developed world is low, but one in five cancer deaths in developing countries are caused by infection. One area where our scientists have changed the scientific landscape is uncovering the links between certain infections and cancer. For example, in 1965, Sir Anthony Epstein and his team identified the link between Epstein-Barr Virus and Burkitt’s lymphoma.
Crucially, these discoveries have led to ways to prevent these cancers developing. Vaccines to protect people from infection have been a resounding success. For example, hepatitis and human papillomavirus jabs are reducing peoples’ risk of liver, cervical, anal and head and neck cancers, and cervical screening includes testing cells for human papillomavirus infection.
Looking ahead, one of our Grand Challenges is asking whether Epstein-Barr virus linked cancers, such as some head and neck cancers, could be stopped too.
3. Ground breaking treatments
Back in the 1920s, research carried out by eminent Cancer Research UK scientists including Professor Valentine Mayneord, Professor Hal Gray and Professor Ralston Paterson formed the foundation of today’s modern radiotherapy, used worldwide to treat people with cancer.
“Radiotherapy is essential to effective treatment and symptom control,” says Professor Mary Gospodarowicz, President of the Union for International Cancer Control (UICC). “It’s recommended as effective care in around half of patients”.
But as Dr David Jaffray, who leads the Global Task Force on Radiotherapy for Cancer Control programme, points out, many patients around the world are missing out.
“Unfortunately, low-to-middle income countries face extremely limited access to the therapy, resulting in an unnecessary loss of lives,” he says.
“With 70 per cent of the world’s cancer deaths expected to be in low-to-middle income countries by 2030, there is an urgent need to invest in radiotherapy in these countries.”
As well as progress in radiotherapy, we’ve also been central to the discovery, development and testing of many vital cancer drugs, including chemotherapies, such as carboplatin, cisplatin, and chlorambucil, temozolomide, and hormone therapies like abiraterone and tamoxifen.
Dr Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society, says our research into breast cancer has benefited women across the world.
“From the earliest hormone-based drug tamoxifen – which four decades ago offered new hope to women with the disease – to the follow-on studies of the aromatase inhibitor anastrazole, to the latest initiatives exploring the genetic code of breast cancer cells, Cancer Research UK has supported research which has improved the lives of women worldwide, including here in the United States.”
4. Back to basics
It’s important not to forget the laboratory discoveries made by our researchers. For example, working out how several important cancer genes – including APC, MYC, NRAS, and p53 – behave in cells, and our researchers won the Nobel Prize for their early investigations of the molecules controlling cell division.
This has been a crucial step in getting new treatments to patients. Cancer Research UK-funded scientists were behind the discoveries that faults in the BRAF gene were the cause of many cases of melanoma, and faulty EGFR genes played a role in many types of cancer. Thanks to these critical first steps, there are several drugs now available that target these faulty molecules, helping patients across the world.
And more recently, our researchers have been leading the way in mapping out the genetic chaos inside tumours, something that’s allowing scientists around the world to make sense of the huge advances in DNA analysis technology.
5. Clinical trials
It’s not just our past discoveries that are helping cancer patients – right now, our clinical trials are helping people around the world get pioneering new treatments.
Our Add Aspirin trial, running in the UK and India, is looking at whether aspirin can prevent cancer from coming back, and we’re launching a trial of a new screening test for early signs of oesophageal cancer – Cytosponge – in the UK and China.
“Every day we see patients who are unable to afford the costs of expensive cancer therapy – they would benefit greatly from an inexpensive form of cancer treatments like aspirin,” says Dr Conjeevaram Pramesh, from the Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai, leading the Add Aspirin clinical trial in India.
“There is immense potential for a simple, cost-effective treatment like aspirin to help people with cancer in India and other resource-poor countries.
Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, from the Cambridge Cancer Centre and whose team is leading the research into the Cytosponge, agrees.
“It’s vital that the international community works together to improve the outcomes for patients with cancer,” she says.
“The Cytosponge is one example of a technology that could be applied to oesophageal cancer worldwide, and we are excited to be teaming up with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences to do a trial in regions of China that have a very high incidence of this disease.”
Thanks to a long term international partnership between Cancer Research UK and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, we’re also testing out a new treatment for cancers linked to the Epstein Barr virus (EBV).
Professor Anthony Chan, from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says: “The results from the EBV vaccine project have paved the way for clinical trials to test an innovative vaccine treatment for nasopharyngeal cancer – a type of cancer that affects many people in South East Asia.
“The results of the trials will help show whether the vaccine could also be used for certain other types of cancer that occur in the UK and worldwide.”
In addition to helping cancer patients in different countries, running international trials speeds up progress for people in the UK too, because doctors can get results quicker by opening their doors to more patients.
And for rarer types of cancer, the International Rare Cancers Initiative is leading to trials spanning several countries – this is often the only way to test new treatments in enough patients to be certain of their benefits.
6. Working together across the globe
To tackle the really big challenges that cancer poses, we’re forging even stronger bonds with international funding partners to support multinational research projects.
The Pancreatic Cancer Dream Team is one example, bringing together top scientists based in the UK and the US to find completely new ways of tackling pancreatic cancer.
Professor Phillip A. Sharp, Nobel Prize winner based at the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and chair of the SU2C Scientific Advisory Committee, says: “At this time of unprecedented progress in cancer research and development of new cancer therapies, we are working hard to change the course of pancreatic cancer, a truly terrible disease.”
Our ability to understand the genetic basis of cancer has rapidly accelerated over the last ten years, and now scientists have the ability to ‘decode’ cancer on an unprecedented scale.
But reading cancer’s DNA is only the start – we need cutting edge computers, as well as experts who can interpret all this genetic information pouring in, to turn this information into new treatments.
This effort needs to be taken on globally. Many different countries – from the US to China, Saudi Arabia and Brazil – are taking part in the International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC), sharing knowledge and tools to analyse all this information. We’re supporting some of the UK’s contribution to the ICGC, focusing on prostate and oesophageal cancers.
Another way to make a big difference to survival – both in the UK and across the word – is improving the way cancer is detected, by developing more sophisticated tests for the disease.
To accelerate this, we’re partnering with the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University in the US, to understand the biology of cancer at its very beginnings, and devise ways to spot potentially lethal cancers as they are forming.
But our most recent, and hugely ambitious venture, is the Grand Challenge. It’s a £100 million pot of money to be awarded to multinational teams of researchers who devise plans to answer one of seven big challenges set by a panel of world experts.
By including international scientists, we hope it will bring the most talented and visionary researchers together to solve problems that will transform the way cancer is prevented, diagnosed and treated.
“The whole idea of a ‘Grand Challenge’ is tremendously exciting,” says panel member Professor Sir David Lane. “It’s a different way of doing research. It brings scientists across the world together and approaches these large problems by combining a wide breadth of skills, knowledge and technology.”
The world is our oyster
World Cancer Day is an opportunity to pause and reflect on our progress, but also to focus on the challenges ahead.
We’ll only be able to rise up and meet them by embracing an international approach, finding ways to help all countries take measures to prevent more cancers, ensure all cancer patients have access to the best treatments and creating opportunities for the brightest scientific minds to work together.
We couldn’t do it without your support.
As the American Cancer Society’s Dr Len Lichtenfeld tells us: “Cancer Research UK has been instrumental for decades in advancing the science of cancer and the care of cancer patients.
“These efforts by Cancer Research UK – driven by its supporters and focused on both basic and clinical science – have made a real difference in the lives of our patients.
“And for that all of us are truly grateful.”
- Find out more about World Cancer Day on our website