Professor Dean Fennell
One of our leading experts in lung cancer, Professor Dean Fennell, shares his thoughts on this devastating disease.
Lung cancer is an enormous health burden both in the UK and globally. It’s incredibly common and kills roughly 35,000 people every year in the UK alone – and more than 1.3 million people worldwide.
But despite its prevalence, and the strain it places on healthcare, progress in treating lung cancer has been slow.
Historically, the disease has always been viewed as one that’s difficult to treat, and this has led to a general lack of interest in trying to move treatments forwards. The reluctance to carry out research into lung cancer was further increased by the perception that we’d hit a plateau with treatment about 10 years ago, and many people in the field felt that we’d reached the limit of what we could achieve in this disease.
A breast cancer cell – but where did it come from?
Our bodies are made of hundreds of different types of cells. And when processes inside them go wrong, and allow them to keep dividing uncontrollably, cancers form.
But individual cells are very small – by the time tumours (which are made of millions of cells) are large enough to be detected, the cells that make them up have evolved and changed along the way.
This makes it difficult to trace a particular tumour’s origins – especially given that we’re now discovering that there are many different types (and subtypes) of cancer. Researchers have long wondered what types of cell different tumours originate from, and what triggers them to ‘go rogue’ in the first place.
A fascinating study from our researchers in Cambridge, published late last year, has begun to help answer these questions – at least for breast cancers.
The team, led by Dr John Stingl, traced the ancestry of different types of cell within normal, healthy breast tissue. And they found clues as to how these diverse cell types might be related to some of the different types of breast cancer.
We’re going to look in detail at what they did – and why it’s an important step forward in understanding the disease. But before leaping into the murky world of biological ‘family trees’, it’s worth a quick pause to look at what breasts are made of.
Get the latest cancer news
It’s been a busy week in the world of cancer research, so let’s get on with our roundup of the top stories.
- As the saying goes, many hands make light work, so we launched the first ever interactive website to allow members of the public to help analyse scientific samples of cancer cells and speed up life-saving research. If you want to get stuck in, simply Click to Cure.
- Scientists at our Beatson Institute in Glasgow discovered that breast cancer cells use a protein called N-WASP to punch their way out of a tumour and spread around the body. Check out our amazing video showing what happens in microscopic detail:
- We reported an update from the landmark METABRIC study, describing how combining two key bits of information about breast cancer cells – their physical characteristics and their genetic fingerprint – can give a more accurate prediction of how the breast cancer will behave. It’s exciting to see so much information coming from this project, which we first wrote about back in April.
- On Wednesday we covered a key item of news from a group of scientists in Australia. Writing in the journal Nature, they have uncovered some important clues about the genes involved in the development of pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer remains stubbornly hard to treat, so we welcome any research that may help drive progress towards better treatments.
- On Tuesday we revealed that our scientists have developed a way of measuring protein levels that can help predict which people with bowel cancer would benefit from the drug Avastin (also covered by Science Daily). In future, this could help doctors distinguish patients that should get Avastin from those who would be more effectively treated with other drugs.
- We spotted an interesting story about a promising early immunotherapy study from scientists in Manchester, reported by Medical News Today. In mice, a drug boosted the immune system helping make radiotherapy treatment for lymphoma more effective.
- On Monday we came across another story linking statins to reducing cancer risk, in this case oesophageal cancer. The potential cancer risk-lowering effects of statins are a complex issue and at the moment there’s no clear answer, but scientists around the world (including our own) are working hard to untangle the facts.
- The Daily Express wrote a nice article highlighting the causes and symptoms of a rarely spoken about disease – mouth cancer. Mouth cancer cases are on the rise and, worryingly, affecting more young people, making raising awareness a positive step. You can read more about mouth cancer on our CancerHelp UK website.
- A group of scientists studying men in Sweden, Norway and Austria have shed light on risk factors for prostate cancer. As reported by the Independent, factors such as high blood pressure, and – to a lesser extent – obesity, blood sugar and cholesterol levels, were all found to be risk factors for developing prostate cancer.
- And finally…Pew! Pew! Pew! The Daily Telegraph covered a story about a futuristic ‘plasma pen’ which delivers a blast of low-temperature plasma that makes leukaemia cells commit suicide. Although it sounds like something from a sci-fi movie it may one day be put to use in the clinic. But it’s still early days as the scientists need to find out whether the plasma harms normal cells in the same way.
Emma Smith, Senior Science Information Officer
It’s news time
As this blog post ‘goes to press’, we’re rushing around the office preparing for the TV event of the year – Stand Up To Cancer. By the time you read this, Channel 4’s inaugural show on Friday evening will have finished, and hopefully raised lots of money for life-saving cancer research.
- Wondering why we’re so excited about Stand Up To Cancer? Then this blog post is worth reading.
- And if we needed a reminder of why it’s important to Stand Up To Cancer, then Tuesday’s sobering statistics about cancer costing 170 million years of healthy human life every year certainly fitted the bill. Here’s our news story.
- Also on Tuesday, we released news about the results of a major clinical trial for lung cancer patients, testing a new treatment called erlotinib. In a surprising discovery, the appearance of a painless skin rash tells doctors how well the patient is responding to the treatment. This finding could help doctors quickly and simply identify who will benefit the most from this drug.
- The BBC, Daily Mail, The Express and others covered a US study this week that suggested taking a multivitamin pill every day moderately lowers the risk of cancer for some men. Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple, and the research had some important limitations. Our overall message remains the same – vitamin and mineral supplements are no substitute for a healthy diet and don’t have the same benefits as getting naturally occurring nutrients in your food. Here’s more info from our health information team.
- And on Wednesday we revealed the findings of a large-scale study of more than 400,000 women, showing that the age a woman starts her periods and experiences the menopause affects her chances of developing certain types of breast cancer. This kind of study is key to understanding the role hormones play in driving breast cancer and how we may be able to tackle it better.
- Around one in five women eligible for cervical cancer screening in England have missed their most recent cervical screening appointment, according to a new report. Our news story looks at the stats.
- A team of scientists in France have shown that radiotherapy after surgery significantly lowers the risk of prostate cancer coming back up to a decade after treatment, among men with early prostate cancer that’s at high risk of coming back. Read the details in our news story.
- The BBC covered a study from Scotland looking at the dangers of second-hand smoke in cars. Looking at nearly 50 car journeys where the driver smoked more than four cigarettes, pollution was shown to be triple safe limits. Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of second-hand smoke, so we hope this evidence will encourage people to think twice before lighting up in a car with children in.
- In other tobacco news, official figures published this week show that rates of tobacco smuggling into the UK have fallen despite earlier claims from the tobacco industry that tax rises would prompt an increase in the illicit trade. Here’s our news story.
- On Thursday the Express told us about a new pill made from vegetable extracts that could be the latest weapon against an aggressive, hard to treat type of breast cancer called triple negative breast cancer. But it’s much too early to say whether these pills are safe and effective in people. And it doesn’t mean that eating vast quantities of broccoli or sprouts will help prevent or treat cancer. Our advice remains to eat a balanced diet with plenty of vegetables and maintain a healthy body weight.
We helped shape how tamoxifen is used
Bringing a new drug to patients is a long and winding road. But the journey doesn’t stop once a drug is approved for use – researchers continue to study and refine how best to give it to patients.
The latest in our High Impact Science series is the story of tamoxifen, a discovery in 1966 that has gone on to save the lives of millions of women with breast cancer.
Around 8 in every 10 breast cancers diagnosed in the UK are classified as ‘oestrogen receptor-positive’ (or ER positive for short). The cancer cells in ER-positive tumours contain large quantities of a protein called the oestrogen receptor. This means the tumours grow in response to the female hormone, oestrogen, which circulates in a woman’s bloodstream.
Being dependent on oestrogen gives ER-positive cancers an Achilles heel: it makes them sensitive to drugs like tamoxifen, which block oestrogen from affecting cancer cells.
Tamoxifen works like a broken key in a lock – it sticks to the oestrogen receptor, preventing the normal ‘key’ (oestrogen) from fitting anymore, thereby stopping the tumour in its tracks. Its precision targeting of ER-positive breast cancer cells in this way mean it is, in effect, a ‘targeted treatment’.
Since its approval in the UK in 1972, tamoxifen’s effectiveness and affordability have earned it a place on a global stage – it appears on the World Health Organisation’s list of essential drugs for the treatment of breast cancer in both developing and developed countries. So, how was this widely used, remarkable drug discovered?