YOU helped us ‘Phil’ the gap in research
“Mind the gap!” warns the voice of Phil Sayer as millions of people travel on the London Underground. Phil’s warning for London’s commuters has immortalised the memory of a famous voice-over artist who, in 2016, sadly died of oesophageal cancer, leaving behind two sons and his wife, Elinor Hamilton.
Phil and Elinor’s story highlights a big gap in cancer research - treatment and survival chances between different forms of cancer. Phil’s oesophageal cancer is on one end of the spectrum. It’s complicated, it’s poorly understood, and the likelihood of survival 10 years after diagnosis is stuck at 12%. Diagnosis of oesophageal cancer usually comes too late, when treatments can’t always help. Four months after Phil’s death Elinor was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer, the same stage Phil’s cancer was found at. Elinor’s breast cancer was at the other end of the spectrum; more than three quarters of people are still alive 10 years after diagnosis. Elinor considers herself “lucky” because previous investments in resources, research and treatment options for breast cancer mean that she is now cancer free.
Mind the gap
With the generous donations of our supporters, Worldwide Cancer Research is trying to close this gap. A vital step to improve the success rate of treatments is early detection, as about 70% of oesophageal cancers are spotted at a late stage of the disease when chances of survival are much lower. Thanks to all the people that responded to our campaign to “Phil the gap” in cancer research last year we were able to raise £20,379, which helped us fund Dr Maria Alcolea at the University of Cambridge to identify early diagnostic markers for oesophageal cancer.
“Identifying diagnostic markers that could be used for early detection in high-risk patients will constitute a major step forward. One of the main reasons preventing advances in early diagnostic and patient survival are the extraordinary differences between tumours from different patients, as well as the immense genetic and molecular differences between cells in an individual patient’s tumour”, Dr Alcolea said.
Detect cancer early
Cancer cells can vary immensely within the tumour, as well as between tumours in different patients. This can make it incredibly difficult to establish which diagnostic markers can be used to detect cancer early. To address this problem, Dr Alcolea’s project will look at stromal cells- supportive cells around the actual cancer cells - which are relatively consistent between tumours. Stromal cells exist as part of any healthy organ, but cancer cells can “recruit” them to help tumour development. Identifying biomarkers that are secreted by these stromal cells could help to detect cancer earlier, improve prognosis and lay the foundations for new therapies in oesophageal cancer. Dr Alcolea and her team have developed a mouse model that grows oesophageal cancer when exposed to carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) from cigarette smoke. Using this disease model, the researchers are trying to establish which biomarkers are expressed at different stages of cancer and whether they could be measured.
If Dr Alcolea and her team can identify biomarkers that are detectable in the blood, they could lay the basis for a test that allows early detection and diagnosis of oesophageal cancer. “Given that around 80-90% of cancers arise from epithelial cells lining our organs, we would expect that some of the early markers identified in this study will be shared between several cancer types, having a much wider impact in early cancer detection than just oesophageal cancer”, said Dr Alcolea.
Thanks to you
Dr Alcolea expressed her thankfulness to the people that make her research possible: “We are extremely grateful to generous supporters that keep on contributing money to charities like Worldwide Cancer Research. These days, when austerity and uncertainty has impacted so much in many ambits of science, it is encouraging to have faithful supporters that believe in what science has and is providing to our society. This long-term investment in pioneering and cutting-edge projects, such as the one we propose, is essential in order to improve the outcome of cancer and most importantly to benefit the quality of life of patients suffering from this devastating disease.”