With every breakthrough in the research labs Cancer Research UK pioneers ways to improve diagnosis, treatment and prevention of more than 200 types of the disease.
In recent years, science has unlocked many of cancer’s complex secrets. From precisely targeted treatments through to better screening tests, innovation has heralded breakthroughs on many fronts. New technologies might spare patients invasive long-term therapy and help deliver the right drugs to the right person at the right time.
“Right now, the UK is in a strong position to shape the future of cancer research by harnessing the power of exceptional scientific thinking, a national healthcare system and world-leading clinical trials,” says Professor Karen Vousden, chief scientist at Cancer Research UK.”
Tiny gold particles loaded with targeted drugs could help deliver treatment to the heart of cancer cells
The breadth of Cancer Research UK’s work is vast – with work underway to tackle more than 200 different types of cancer. In his own lifetime, Dr Allan Jordan, head of chemistry in the Drug Discovery Unit at the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute, says he has seen 10-year cancer survival double from one in four to two in four during his lifetime.
“Cancer Research UK wants to take that to three in four. The only way we will do that is through research. We will win this fight because knowledge is power,” he says.
Here is a selection of breakthrough science supported by Cancer Research UK, the world’s largest charitable funder of cancer research.
The iKnifeAn “intelligent” knife which can reveal the difference between healthy and cancerous cells is being tested by scientists at Imperial College London. Currently one in five patients who have breast cancer surgery need more operations because traces of cancer left behind during surgery have regrown. But the electronic iKnife allows doctors to test at-risk tissue on the spot during an operation. As the iKnife passes through the tissue, the smoke produced is sucked into a sensitive machine that allows medics to analyse whether it is cancerous or healthy. Scientists believe this will improve treatment by helping surgeons identify and remove cancer more effectively.
Nano bubblesScientists at the University of Oxford are investigating innovative ways of targeting pancreatic cancer. As tumours grow the blood supply to the tissue can’t keep up, but cancer cells often adapt to the resultant shortage of oxygen, which can make them hardier and more resistant to treatment.
Researchers want to find out if they can raise oxygen levels in tumours and make cancer cells more vulnerable to therapies. Injecting nano bubbles – pockets of air much tinier than those in fizzy drinks – into the tumour’s blood supply has shown promising results in mice.
The team is now developing a drink of nano bubbles and will give this to mice to see if it is safe and shows promise, with the eventual goal of one day testing it in people.
Liquid biopsiesSome tumours shed genetic material into a patient’s blood, and investigating the vital clues from the “escaped” DNA from cancer cells is a huge area of interest for cancer researchers.
In the blood: liquid biopsies could be a less invasive, more accurate way to track cancer
Doctors and scientists are investigating if blood samples – or a “liquid biopsy” – could be a less invasive and more precise way of understanding each patient’s disease.
A team at Cancer Research UK’s Manchester Institute is investigating how tracking tumours by analysing blood might offer a better, more immediate way to monitor how patients with late-stage skin cancer are responding to therapy and understand more about how some become resistant to drugs.
Gold nanoparticlesTiny gold particles loaded with targeted drugs could help deliver treatment right to the heart of cancer cells, scientists have found. And researchers at Cancer Research UK’s Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology have tagged the gold nanoparticles with a low dose of radiation, allowing them to trace their journey right into the control room of cancer cells.
Gold is absorbed by cells relatively easily, and the team showed that in the lab, nanoparticles of the precious metal were delivering drugs precisely to where they were needed.
Laboratory research on skin-cancer cells has shown this treatment can halt the spread of the disease. And the same method could also be used to deliver a dose of radioactivity to cancer cells to help destroy them.
“Our long-term goal is to design new [cancer] treatments based on this promising approach,” says project lead researcher Professor Kate Vallis.
Genetic editingScientists at University College London’s (UCL) laboratories are investigating if they can use a pioneering gene-editing technique to remove the “sleep switch” from specific immune cells that are trained to spot cancer, encouraging them to destroy the cancer cells.
Usually, the switch stops immune cells from attacking healthy cells, and cancer cells are able to hijack this switch to protect themselves from attack. Some immunotherapy drugs work by turning off the sleep switch, but these can affect the whole of the immune system – which can cause serious side effects.
A study on mice showed that tumours shrank when researchers removed the sleep switch in just the cancer-fighting cells using gene editing, and researchers hope to test this technique in people via clinical trials.
“This means we may have a way to get around cancer’s defences while only targeting the immune cells that recognise the cancer,” says Dr Sergio Quezada, Cancer Research UK scientist.
All exceedingly good news.
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