Cancer Research UK on Google+ Cancer Research UK on Facebook Cancer Research UK on Twitter
Donate

Let's beat cancer sooner

2016: A YEAR IN CANCER RESEARCH

As with most years, cancer has never been far from the headlines in 2016. Many household names sadly died from cancer this year. But many households too will have faced their own cancer journeys.

Thanks to your generous donations, it has also been a year of progress in research.

JANUARY

It was the month that David Bowie, Alan Rickman and Sir Terry Wogan died from cancer. But with US President Barack Obama unveiling the national cancer ‘moonshot’ initiative – spearheaded by Vice President Joe Biden – global optimism around tackling cancer was boosted.

And our scientists were making progress too.

We revolutionised the largest database for cancer drug discovery by adding information about the 3D shape of the faulty proteins it houses.

Scientists find new genetic fault behind ovarian cancer

Women who carry an inherited fault in the BRIP1 gene are over 3 times more likely to develop ovarian cancer than those without the fault, according to our scientists.

Around 18 women in every 1,000 develop ovarian cancer, but this risk increases to around 58 women in every 1,000 for those with a faulty BRIP1 gene. It’s estimated that one in every 1,000 UK women have the genetic fault.

“Our work has found a valuable piece of the puzzle behind ovarian cancer and we hope [it] could eventually form the basis of a genetic test to identify women at greatest risk.”

– Professor Paul Pharoah, CRUK Cambridge Institute

FEBRUARY

A century in the making, Einstein’s theory of gravitational waves was proven true as scientists in the US revealed data for these ‘ripples in space-time that stem from objects moving throughout the Universe’.

Our scientists were gathering long-awaited evidence too: how breast cancer cells spread from blood vessels and if immunotherapy drugs could be used to treat head and neck cancer.

But in many labs around the world, talk was of one thing alone: a revolutionary gene editing technology called CRISPR.

Opening a window of opportunity for head and neck cancer

Our scientists launched a clinical trial testing an experimental cancer drug, called AMG319, to find out if it can remove a molecular ‘defence shield’ that hides cancer cells from the immune system.

The Phase II trial, taking place at Poole Hospital, Southampton General Hospital, and the Clatterbridge Cancer Centre/Aintree University Hospital, is looking at the effects of giving this drug to patients with a type of head and neck cancer known as squamous cell carcinoma, to determine whether it can help the body’s immune system to fight cancer.

Read more about the trial in this blog post.

 

“It’s become clear that patients with more immune cells in their head and neck tumours generally have a better outlook."

Professor Ottensmeier

“This is a really exciting trial because we’re using this drug in solid tumours for the first time."

Professor Ottensmeier

“We will study how the immune cells behave before and after AMG319 and whether they have become more effective."

Professor Ottensmeier

CRISPR gene editing: new chapter in cancer research or blot in the ethical copybook?

With the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) giving scientists at London’s Francis Crick Institute a licence to use new gene editing technology to study embryo development, we explored how scientists use the revolutionary technique – called CRISPR – to study cancer.

Dr Adrian Saurin, one our experts in studying how cancer cells divide, said the implications of CRISPR will be enormous, particularly for studying faulty proteins in cancer. “We can observe biology, without artificially interfering with it, and then make changes just to the DNA and examine the consequences,” he said.

“That’s the only true way to get cause from effect. It’s going to open up a whole load of new questions that we just weren’t able to address before.”

MARCH

Triggering an existential crisis for board game fans, a computer programme powered by artificial intelligence beat a world champion at his own game, Go.

Meanwhile our scientists were employing complex computer programmes of their own as they uncovered a potential weakness on the surface of tumour cells.

And we also found a successful drug combination to treat a certain type of breast cancer and took on the challenge of children’s brain tumours.

Video play button

Targeting tumours

Our scientists have uncovered more about what the immune system ‘sees’ on the surface of cancer cells.

Targeting tumours

Our scientists have uncovered more about what the immune system ‘sees’ on the surface of cancer cells.

Drug combination shrinks certain breast cancers within 11 days

We released results from a clinical trial testing a combination of two drugs – lapatinib (Tyverb) and trastuzumab (Herceptin) – before surgery in women with so-called ‘HER2 positive’ breast cancer.

The EPHOS B trial, led by researchers at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, the University of Manchester and University Hospital of South Manchester NHS Foundation Trust, studied 257 women with HER2 positive breast cancer in the short gap between initial diagnosis and surgery to remove their tumours. They wanted to see if women given these drugs before surgery did better than those who didn’t receive the drugs.

In only 11 days, 17% of the women receiving both drugs saw their tumours shrink to smaller than 5mm in size. And for 11% of women their tumour completely disappeared.

According to the co-lead scientist Professor Judith Bliss, the results were surprising. And the findings may lead to fewer women needing chemotherapy after surgery.

Scientists discover new way to tackle challenging children’s brain tumour

Our scientists found that a curable sub-type of medulloblastoma brain tumours in children – called WNT medulloblastoma – grow ‘leaky’ blood vessels that allow higher than normal levels of chemotherapy drugs to reach the cancer cells.

This discovery helps scientists understand why these tumours respond better to treatment than others. And it could help them find and develop more effective treatments for the less curable medulloblastoma sub-types.

“This research is exciting because it means that as well as finding kinder treatments for a curable sub-type of brain tumour, we may also be able to manipulate brain tumours that are difficult to treat successfully to make them more responsive to treatment.”

– Professor Richard Gilbertson, lead scientist

APRIL

It was the month of the largest data leak in the world.

But as the Panama Papers faced public scrutiny, our scientists were scrutinising how an HIV drug might help kill melanoma cells that are resistant to treatment.

And our researchers in Cambridge were making waves with a new imaging technique.

First cancer patient in Europe scanned with a revolutionary imaging technique

The rapid scan, which took place in Cambridge, will allow doctors to map the activity of cells in patients, opening up potential new ways to detect cancer and monitor the effects of treatment.

It could also help doctors see whether a drug is working within a day or two of starting treatment.

“Each person’s cancer is different and this technique could help us tailor a patient’s treatment more quickly than before.”

– Professor Kevin Brindle, co-lead, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute

We hope this will progress the way cancer treatment is given and make therapy more effective for future patients.

Dr Ferdia Gallagher
MAY

As the first batch of plain, standardised cigarettes started landing on shop shelves in the UK, we launched the UK-part of an international trial looking at the best way to treat children with a type of brain tumour called ependymoma.

Our scientists also used DNA analysis to link 40 genes to breast cancer.

But perhaps our most touching and poignant research to hit the headlines in May was the PEACE study.

Post mortem cancer study goes national

We announced a £4million investment to expand the UK’s first national study collecting blood and tissue samples from patients who have died from cancer, in a bid to shed light on what happens during the final stages of the disease.

The PEACE study, led by Cancer Research UK UCL Centre, will collect post mortem samples from up to 500 patients who died from cancer.

Doctors have invited terminally ill patients – most of whom are taking part in clinical trials – to discuss with their families the idea of donating samples after death, before deciding to be part of this pioneering research.

This study will help researchers create a detailed timeline of the biological changes in a patient’s cancer from diagnosis to death.

“This study will help us complete the whole cancer picture – from diagnosis to death.”

Professor Charles Swanton

“I think it’s important to give the patient a choice to contribute to research that will help save others’ lives.”

Maggie Wilcox, cancer survivor

“I hope one day that donating tissue after death is as normal as donating blood.”

Maggie Wilcox

“It’s an opportunity to create something positive out of a difficult experience.”

Maggie Wilcox

“I had no qualms about agreeing to take part."

Lydia Knott, cancer patient

If it helps other people and helps to advance research into cancer treatments then it can only be a positive study.

Lydia Knott
JUNE

Brexit was the word on everyone’s lips in June. Before the UK voted leave, stories from the world’s largest cancer conference – the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) conference – grabbed the headlines.

The take home messages were the need to tailor treatments based on the underlying genetics of cancer, and understanding the nitty gritty of how immunotherapy works in some patients and not others.

Here’s a snippet of our favourite tweets and links to come out of Chicago.

JULY

NASA’s Juno space probe entered the orbit of Jupiter, and we appointed our new chief scientist, Professor Karen Vousden.

Our scientists revealed how the anti-malarial drug atovaquone could help radiotherapy destroy tumours.

But our top science story for this month was all about growing mini tumours in the lab to speed up drug testing.

Check out the video below explaining all.

Video play button

Organoids

A ball of cells with their own ‘passport’ may speed up drug testing.

Organoids

A ball of cells with their own ‘passport’ may speed up drug testing.

AUGUST

Olympic athletes dazzled the world, but success wasn’t confined to Rio. The first CRISPR trials in humans started, and we found a promising combination of drugs to treat lung cancer.

But our biggest story of the month took on the tough question of whether or not cancer is just bad luck (spoiler, it’s more complicated than that).

Why cancer is more than ‘just bad luck’?

Our researchers in Cambridge, and colleagues in the US, uncovered the ‘perfect storm’ of conditions that can lead to cancer. The discovery could help explain why some organs are more susceptible to developing tumours than others.

Read our blog post or press play below to find out why this shows that cancer is more than just bad luck.

 

Video play button

A perfect storm

A ‘perfect storm’ is needed for cancer to develop.

A perfect storm

A ‘perfect storm’ is needed for cancer to develop.

SEPTEMBER

Europe’s super-lab, the Francis Crick Institute, opened its doors to scientists, promising to be a ‘beacon of international science’.

Priscilla Chan, and her husband, social media mogul, Mark Zuckerberg, announced a $3 billion investment towards the lofty goal of curing all diseases, with a reported $8.2 million going to cancer research.

September also revealed some promising progress in our oesophageal cancer research.

Scroll down to see how infrared beams might become the latest early detection tool.

Infra-red light to detect early signs of oesophageal cancer

Researchers at our Cambridge Institute sprayed a dye on to oesophageal tissue samples taken from people with Barrett’s oesophagus – a condition that can develop in to oesophageal cancer.

The dye sticks to healthy oesophageal cells but not to precancerous cells.

And this new technique could one day be used to monitor people with Barrett’s oesophagus who have an increased risk of developing oesophageal cancer.

“People who are at a high risk of developing oesophageal cancer, such as those with Barrett’s oesophagus, could be closely monitored with this technique. But we need to do some further testing before clinical trials with patients can be set up.”

– Dr Sarah Bohndiek, lead researcher

Read this blog post for more info.

Oesophageal cancer might be 3 different diseases

The discovery, led by our scientists at the MRC Cancer Unit at the University of Cambridge, paves the way for testing new drugs that could target specific weaknesses unique to each type of oesophageal cancer.

“The next step is to test this approach in a clinical trial. The trial would use a DNA test to categorise patients into one of the three groups to determine the best treatments for each group.”

– Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, lead researcher

OCTOBER

Radiotherapy received a £130 million boost to upgrade or replace existing machines in England. The Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine was awarded to a cancer scientist and Stand Up to Cancer raised a gigantic £15,700,222.

We ran a series of blog posts that focused on the science funded by your generous donations, including cancer cells with shape-shifting abilities, and studies looking at how cancer cells use an ‘invisibility cloak’ to hide from the immune system.

But our top pick for science in October was found in a zebrafish lab in Edinburgh.

Zebrafish reveal brain tumours’ secret ally

Our scientists in Edinburgh made it possible to see the unexpected relationship that specialised immune cells in the brain (called microglia) have with brain tumour cells.

Their findings could open up a new way to test drugs for the most common type of brain tumour, glioblastoma.

Read our blog post for more.

Video play button

Zebrafish reveal brain tumours' secret ally

Zebrafish are helping scientists develop treatments for brain tumours.

Zebrafish reveal brain tumours' secret ally

Zebrafish are helping scientists develop treatments for brain tumours.

NOVEMBER

Donald Trump became the president-elect, and Andy Murray topped the tennis world.

But the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference in Liverpool also reached great heights.

It featured our scientists who’d designed a blood test that could help predict the best treatment for lung cancer, some interesting links between liver cancer and obesity, and a potential way to predict if immunotherapy will work… using poo samples.

Yet the brightest idea to come from the conference was a study using gold nanoparticles to deliver a one two punch to cancer cells – scroll down to find out more.

Video play button

“Gold is precious in more than one way”

How gold nanoparticles are helping scientists trace drugs right into the heart of cancer cells.

“Gold is precious in more than one way”

How gold nanoparticles are helping scientists trace drugs right into the heart of cancer cells.

Scientists reveal ‘genetic signatures’ left by cigarette smoke

The fact that smoking kills isn’t news. But the big question is: how precisely does tobacco smoking harm the DNA in our cells to such a devastating degree that it causes cancer?

In November a detailed study, led by scientists at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, revealed some of the details. And it seems that the situation is more complex, and more sinister, than previously appreciated, as different tissues of the body display different hallmarks of smoking damage. Read this post to find out once again just how devastating smoking can be.

We also took to social media to share the news.

DECEMBER

We partnered up with the British Thoracic Society to design an app that could help doctors studying lung scans.

We also tackled some misleading headlines claiming chocolate helps cancer spread (it doesn’t), but the science is fascinating.

Could a smartphone app help doctors diagnose lung cancer?

The list of things that smartphones can do is constantly growing. And that includes supporting the world of medicine.

To explore this potential we partnered up with the British Thoracic Society and developed an app for iPhone and iPad to help guide doctors assessing scans that could show signs of lung cancer.

The app gives health professionals quick and easy access to guidelines developed by the British Thoracic Society, turning the mobile phone into a powerful way to potentially diagnose lung cancer.

“Moving beyond selfies, social media and playlists, this app is designed to support clinicians in their decision-making so we can help ensure the right people are getting the right tests at the right time.”

Dr Jodie Moffat, Cancer Research UK

Check out our blog post for more info.

“The app makes it much easier to plan nodule follow up in clinics and team meetings. I’m a big fan!”

user
THANK YOU

None of the research we’ve funded this year would have been possible without our amazing supporters. So we want to take this opportunity to thank each and every one of you.