Cancer patients: our partners in research
On International Clinical Trials day we say a heartfelt “thank you” to the millions of people across the world who volunteer to participate in cancer research every year. Dr Helen Rippon, Chief Executive of Worldwide Cancer Research, explains why this is so important.
International Clinical Trials day
In May 1747, Scottish surgeon James Lind carried out the first known example of a clinical trial, on twelve sailors with scurvy. Grouping the twelve into pairs and giving each pair a different experimental remedy for just two weeks, he showed that citrus fruits were the key. International Clinical Trials day is held annually in late May in recognition of this very first attempt to find an effective treatment through a fair and controlled test.
Of course, clinical trials have moved on a lot in the last 270 years. For a complex disease like cancer, the final stages of drug testing involve not twelve, but hundreds or thousands of volunteers worldwide. Those who sign up for trials may have a chance of benefiting from an experimental treatment, but another strong motivation is often the wish of helping others diagnosed with cancer in future. There is no doubt that it does. Without those volunteers, it’s hard to see how all the new cancer treatments that have helped double cancer survival in the last 40 years would exist.
At Worldwide Cancer Research, we focus on funding earlier stages of research that hunt down cancer’s vulnerabilities and develop new drugs for testing. We count it as a terrific success if the research we support moves into clinical trials later - and we know that some of it has. Like new immune-based therapies developed by Professors Awen Gallimore and Andrew Godkin for bowel cancer, and by Professor John Maher for head and neck cancer.
A vital donation
It isn’t only clinical trials where patients play a pivotal part though; it’s early stage laboratory research too. Although scientists have a plethora of laboratory models that approximate human cancer, there comes a point in research where only the real thing will do. By donating blood or tissue samples for scientists to study, cancer patients help hugely to advance the understanding of cancer. A large slice of the projects we fund relies on these samples.
One such project is Professor Andrew Fry’s. He wants to find ways of improving cancer chemotherapy, and tells us “the incredibly generous decision of cancer patients and their families to allow scientists to use tissue samples is absolutely critical for our research. Only by looking directly at patients’ cells and their response to new treatments can we hope to identify the right treatments for each individual.”
And it’s not just about generating the next whizz-bang cancer drug, there’s a pragmatic side too. “Without these samples, and the understanding that comes from their use in research, treatments will be less effective and money will be wasted that could have been used to treat others” he says.
Also helped by these vital donations are Professor Pierre van der Bruggen’s project trying to find out how cunning cancer cells escape death by our immune system, and Professor Johanna Schleutker’s quest to find new genes involved in prostate cancer.
So let’s express our gratitude to the many millions who, over decades, have selflessly helped advance cancer medicine from a time where every diagnosis was terminal to where it is today. And let’s encourage those who might contribute to cancer research in future.
Cancer research is working - and it can’t happen without you.
Many thanks to Professor Christine Clarke and Dr Dinny Graham for this microscope picture of donated human breast tissue (above.) The picture shows staining for two proteins called cytokeratin 14 (red) and cytokeratin 19 (green), which can be used to tell different types of cells apart. Staining for a combination of cytokeratins allows them to study the mix of cell types that are found in the breast. In this picture, the cells (magnified 300 times) that appears yellow have both cytokeratin types. These cells have the potential to grow and develop, which makes them more at risk of cancer development. They are using these techniques to study how hormones are involved in breast cancer development.