The cancers stuck in the 1970s
Survival rates are up for many cancers, but for some, the outlook has barely improved since the 1970s. Dr Helen Rippon, Head of Research, explains just what this means.
If you need proof that research really does work, look back to the 1970s. Back then, just 1 in 4 of us diagnosed with cancer could expect to live 10 years or more, now half will reach that important 10 year mark. And success is virtually across the board – from breast cancer, to bowel cancer, to leukaemia – people are living longer. This is in no small part thanks to research-led advances in tests and treatments, bringing us improved diagnosis and better therapies.
But what of the cancers still stubbornly stuck in the 1970s?
Just 1 in 20 lung cancer patients diagnosed today will survive 10 years. This rate has barely improved over 40 years. A recent post talks more about difficulties surrounding this disease. It’s a similar story for brain and pancreatic cancers, which have not improved at all. But why is this still the case, when research has made such incredible leaps and bounds with other cancers? There are many reasons, but one stark reality is that these cancers are difficult. They are often hard to spot and diagnosed late, and once diagnosed they can be tough to treat. Surgery and radiotherapy might not always be possible. Treatments can be limited, and treatment resistance common. Research has made progress – but the going has been slow. Put simply, we need to do more. We can’t let these cancers lag behind. That’s why we don’t discriminate between cancers. During our application process we give every type of cancer equal importance. Some of our newest projects targeting cancers with lower survival rates include:
Treating pancreatic cancer
Professor Owen Sansom at the Beatson Institute for Cancer Research, Glasgow, Scotland who is carrying out research into pancreatic cancer. Only around 3 percent of pancreatic cancer patients survive for five years or more after diagnosis which is a truly shocking statistic. It is hard to treat and new approaches are desperately needed. So Professor Sansom is studying a gene, called MYC, which pancreatic cancer cells seem to need to survive. He wants to know if targeting molecules linked to the MYC gene could be a new method of attack.
Oesophageal cancer and radiotherapy
The ten year survival rates for oesophageal (foodpipe) cancer has more than trebled in the last 40 years but is still very low with just 1 in 10 (10 percent) of patients surviving their disease. Dr Ludwig Dubois at Maastricht University in The Netherlands is trying to improve treatment success rates for oesophageal cancer. Oesophageal tumours often have low-oxygen regions that don’t respond well to radiotherapy. Dr Dubois thinks combining radiotherapy with new experimental drug TH-302, which targets these regions, might help. He’s now testing this in patient and mouse cells in the lab. Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers in the world with nearly 1.83 million new cases estimated to have been diagnosed in 2012. Worldwide around 1.59 million people were estimated to have died from lung cancer in 2012. In the UK a mere 5 percent of people diagnosed with lung cancer survive the disease for at least ten years after diagnosis. Professor Patrick Ryan Potts at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre in Dallas, USA is investigating MAGE proteins, which are produced in lung cancer cells but not healthy lung cells. This could make these proteins a good potential target for new anticancer drugs and Professor Potts wants to find out how. The steady improvement in cancer survival shows we’re going in the right direction. But it’s also a call to keep going, to do more. To keep supporting vital research around the world. Because it’s research that will make the difference.
Statistics source: CRUK Key Facts Reports
Photo: Dr Helen Rippon