2020 has seen people across the globe impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Science is no exception – with many researchers focusing on the drive to develop treatments for the virus.

But it doesn’t mean that cancer progress has been forgotten. From new oesophageal cancer screening methods to AI collaborations with Google, here are some of the top stories from the year.

COVID-19 and cancer

Without a doubt, the biggest story of the year continues to be the COVID-19 pandemic. We spent this year providing rolling updates covering the pandemic and its impact on people affected by cancer.

COVID-19 has had far reaching effects on all aspects of healthcare in the UK, from disrupting clinical trials and putting a hold on screening services to leaving millions of people across the country waiting for cancer tests, treatment and care.

Over the year, we’ve heard from people affected by cancer who’ve been impacted by COVID-19….

This year, many Cancer Research UK scientists used their considerable expertise to try to help the efforts against COVID-19. One lab in particular used their work on anti-cancer viruses to help develop a virus that could target the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2.And with the latest global push into developing and rolling out a vaccine, we’ve been covering the science behind the research and what it could mean for people with cancer.

Trialling a sponge on a string for oesophageal cancer

This year, results from an unusual early detection test were released. Cytosponge – a sponge inside a pill that collects cells from the oesophagus as it’s pulled back out – presents an opportunity for doctors to spot an early precursor to oesophageal cancer. Researchers discovered that this technique found 10 times more cases of Barrett’s oesophagus in the people that were offered the Cytosponge compared with what GP’s ordinarily do. The results went down extremely well with our community.

Developed over the last 20 years, Cytosponge is now being introduced in Scotland as a ‘simpler alternative to endoscopy’ in a £500,000 programme. And the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence have developed a briefing to support NHS commissioners and staff who are considering implementing Cytosponge into services in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A grand challenge with guts

A Cancer Research UK research team working on one of our Cancer Grand Challenges have been tracing the toxic fingerprint of a bug found in our gut.

Using miniature replicas of the gut and huge genetic databases, the team found that a toxic strain of E.coli could be implicated in the development of bowel cancer.

By getting a better understanding of the early triggers that lead to bowel cancer, it could help doctors to detect it earlier, at a stage when treatment is more likely to be successful. Not only that, understanding how the bacteria inside the microbiome affects cancer could help researchers develop new treatments.

Making a live biobank

Cells taken from cancer patients hold key clues for researchers trying to solve the questions that different cancers pose. Because of this, biobanks containing human material taken from across the body – are vital for research. The issue is that in order to preserve cells, they have to either be dropped in a solution of formaldehyde or frozen at -80 degrees – both of which kill the cells.

A lab in Manchester has bucked that trend, developing a biobank of living tissue – pushing forward research into ovarian cancer.

Training AI to help improve breast cancer screening

Cancer Research UK scientists have created a database of anonymised breast cancer scans, which has been used by  Google Health and scientists at Imperial college London to develop AI software that could correctly identify cancers in the database of over 2.5 million images with a similar degree of accuracy as the experts.

We spoke to experts to find how this early stage algorithm was trained and what these initial findings could mean for the NHS and cancer services in the future.

Learning about the lungs

Our scientists have been trying to glean more about how lung cancer works. Researchers on the TRACERx project have been mapping how non-small cell lung cancer tumours impact the immune system and how it adapts to counter the tumour. In addition to that, we’ve funded one of the world’s largest precision medicine clinical trials over the last 5 years and the results are finally in.

And new data from the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) show the clearest signs yet that one of the most promising concepts in modern cancer medicine – targeted therapy – seems to be having an impact in lung cancer.

These are only a few of the many stories that have come out this year and things move ever onwards. Thanks for all your generous donations throughout 2020 that made this brilliant work possible. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Cancer Research UK. 

Alex