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How one scientist is trying to “Phil the Gap” in research

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No one understands more that research saves lives than the people who each day are able to say they are still here because of advances in our understanding of cancer that have led to new drugs, new tests and new ways to stop cancer in its tracks.

Elinor Hamilton is one of these people. Thanks to research she has been given the “all clear” following treatment for her breast cancer. But she also knows that not everyone hears those two words.  Elinor and her two boys, Alex and Ben lost their husband and father, Phil Sayer, voice of the famous “Mind the Gap” announcement on the London Underground, to oesophageal cancer only a few months before Elinor herself was diagnosed with breast cancer:

“I feel particularly fortunate that I've benefited from years of research - especially because our children now don't need to face losing another parent. However, it saddens me deeply that research into Phil's type of cancer is so far behind”.

Research into oesophageal cancer has been historically underfunded. Despite this, each year over 450,000 people worldwide are diagnosed with this type of cancer and it takes the lives of over 400,000 people.

Dr Ludwig Dubois at Universiteit Maastricht in the Netherlands is a cancer researcher who, thanks to our supporters, has recently completed a research project on oesophageal cancer:

“Oesophageal cancer research is so important because we are seeing more and more people diagnosed with this type of cancer. As well as this, the current treatment regimens seem to offer very limited survival benefit for patients. This is why our research is focused on trying to develop new ways to treat oesophageal cancer”.

Dr Dubois’ project aimed to test whether a new drug, called Evofosfamide, could improve the effectiveness of radiotherapy to kill oesophageal cancer cells. Radiotherapy is one of the main treatment types for oesophageal cancer but some regions of the tumour are often resistant to treatment. These resistant regions are usually areas where there is a low concentration of oxygen, something scientists call “hypoxic” or “hypoxia”.

“Hypoxia literally means low oxygen, and we know that radiotherapy is less effective against hypoxic regions of a tumour. Evofosfamide is a drug that kills cancer cells but it is only activated when it reaches these hypoxic regions, so we wanted to see if this drug could improve treatment by targeting these regions at the same time as hitting the rest of the tumour with radiotherapy,” explained Dr Dubois.

“So far we have tested this combination therapy in mice and found it to be more effective than either of the treatments on their own. Importantly, we haven’t noticed any additional toxicity to the mice from combining the treatments, which suggests this could be a safe way to treat oesophageal cancer”.

Drugs that target these specific hypoxic regions within tumours hold a lot of promise and Dr Dubois’ team are currently in collaboration with Auckland University, New Zealand, to develop a next-generation drug currently undergoing testing in the lab.

“Our newly developed hypoxia-activated drug is in advanced lab testing with very promising results. Currently, safety studies are ongoing to determine a starting dose suitable to be given to people in a clinical trial.

“Cancer is still a dreadful disease and requires continued research since current treatment options have seemed to reach their limits. It is because of the kind donations from the public that we can continue our research in order to find new therapies, improve current therapies and increase quality of life. Our gratitude towards all those that give to Worldwide Cancer Research cannot be expressed in words other than saying THANK YOU.”

The advances made by Dr Dubois and the many other cancer researchers around the world who focus on oesophageal cancer will be welcome news to people like Elinor. Just this year, Elinor ran the London Marathon in support of Worldwide Cancer Research and raised an incredible £6,500!

“Hopefully, between us, we can help to ‘Phil the Gap’ between the survival rates for oesophageal and breast cancers.”

Thanks for reading. To support Elinor’s mission to ‘Phil the Gap’, please visit to make a donation to our Summer Appeal today.

Science Communications Manager

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