Dr Jules Randerson-Moore shows genetic data as a 'heat map'.
We’re in the second week of our partnership with Absolute Radio and Magic to share the stories of those living with cancer or researching the disease right now. Garry, a radio producer, is travelling the country for us, and he will be sharing what he finds in a weekly blog diary. Read about his visits to Leeds, Belfast, Portsmouth, Chorley and Birmingham.
It was fascinating last week to begin investigating how fundraising, education and research are all interlinked at Cancer Research UK. And this week I was looking forward to discovering even more.
I travelled to Leeds to speak to Dr Jules Randerson-Moore, who is researching how genes differ between melanoma patients, and how this can help to identify if patients do better or worse with different treatments. Moore told me how this could be a “game changer”, not just in melanoma, but in other types of cancer too.
There was a lot of difficult science in what she was discussing, but she was really great at bringing out elements that I could grasp. So when she talked about how she analyses data, she showed me some of the ‘heat maps’ that they use to try and work out which genes might be causing which behaviours among the cancer cells.
Moore explained that it was a bit of a puzzle.
“It’s all about can we see the patterns in the data,” she told me.
“It is exactly like a treasure hunt, it’s like looking for that four leafed clover – you’re looking at something where everything seems the same, except that one thing, that you’re waiting to just pop out at you.”
As I left Moore’s lab, I felt I had a real sense of the challenge facing researchers. It’s a constant search for a needle in a haystack for them, but the benefits of that search are worth it for the patients when they come to fruition.
Listen to Dr Jules Randerson-Moore discussing her work:
Next I was in Belfast, meeting Dr Aideen Campbell – a researcher with a very different background.
She has taken time out from surgical training to carry out a clinical fellowship with Cancer Research UK working on clinical trials.
Their team is looking at a specific type of breast cancer caused by faults in the BRCA1 gene.
Certain women who are carriers can choose to have risk-reducing mastectomies, and the team is investigating other options for these women too.
For Campbell, working in clinical research was a massively different challenge to surgery, and was proving hugely rewarding.
She said she wanted to learn more about the science behind the research, and so contribute more in the future with recruiting patients into trials and being able to contribute to the design of those trials.
Meeting patients involved in clinical trials has also helped her understand what it means to them to take part in research.
“Our research is changing lives and changing futures,” she told me.
“It’s really important that patients are involved, because when you’re sitting in your white coat in the lab, it’s quite easy to forget that the end product is treatment for a patient.”
Listen to Dr Aideen Campbell talking about her work:
In Fareham, near Portsmouth, I met Jayne who’s running the organising committee for Relay for Life. It’s a fundraising event that’s celebrating its 20th year next weekend, and sees teams of family and friends staying on the track for 24 hours.
She was drawn to fundraising for Cancer Research UK after her mum was diagnosed with cancer and had a poor prognosis.
Thanks to the treatment she received, Jayne’s mum has been given the all clear. And Jayne said she was keen to “give something back, because without Cancer Research UK, without fundraisers, I honestly don’t believe my mum would be here today”.
It was really interesting to speak to Jayne and get an insight into the life behind organising a fundraising event.
They work all year round to get ready, and she and her team were working through the final details. As I was there, two deliveries of catering supplies arrived, and her house was filling up with supplies for the event including cases of bottled water.
Listen to Jayne talking about why she supports Cancer Research UK:
I next met Stephen, in a village near Chorley in Lancashire, who after being cured of prostate cancer had been diagnosed with myeloma, a type of cancer that starts in the bone marrow. He’d just finished a course of treatment for a related-tumour and was looking forward to his youngest son’s wedding.
Stephen was in great spirits when I met him, and was enjoying the time that his treatment had given him.
He was getting his motorbike ready for its MOT. This is his pride and joy, he told me (apart from his family of course). It’s a Norton Commando, which he revved up for me, and was the same kind of bike he sold 40 years ago so that he could buy his first house.
Listen to Stephen talk about his bike
You could tell that Stephen’s attitude helped him immensely: “Where people normally talk about a battle with cancer… I would call it a war of attrition,” he told me.
“The cancer’s going to win, but I’m fine with that.”
And he was making sure that the extra time he’d been given was used well, whether it’s making a summerhouse in his garden or doing the Great North Run with his sons helping him round the course.
One thing I learned from Stephen was the importance of the extra months and years that treatment can give to patients.
Listen to Stephen talking about his experience of cancer:
In Birmingham, I met research nurse Karen Turner and researcher Andrew Beggs, who is also a surgeon.
Karen spoke about her admiration for patients who take part in trials and how they as nurses try to help them as best as they can, including taking care of the practicalities, such as childcare or structuring treatments around work.
One thing that continues to inspire her was seeing the results of the trials.
“When you look back and see new treatments now being given to many patients, two years ago this was a new drug, now everyone’s benefiting,” she told me. And she took great pride in “knowing that you’ve been part of the story with a whole team”.
The way that technology was helping speed up research was something that excited Andrew.
In his lab, they’re looking at patients’ DNA to try and discover why some people have different responses to treatment.
And he was keen to show off a DNA sequencer that could read an entire human genome in a day – as opposed to taking a year, 10 years ago.
And Andrew told me how important it was that they could analyse the data quicker.
“It’s a very exciting time to be a scientist,” he told me. “And it’s through these advances that we are going to bring on cures for cancers much more quickly.”
This week has been very interesting, and I feel I’m starting to understand more about how the doctors and scientists are working, and how the advances we’ve already made in research and technology are helping patients right now.
And, perhaps most importantly, I’ve been able to see the importance this has for patients and their families.
Next week, I’ll be meeting more researchers, patients and fundraisers across the country. And for my final visits I’ll be spending time in Fife, Glasgow, Cardiff and Bristol.