When we’re communicating about our science at The Institute of Cancer Research, we generally do so through the snapshots of individual research studies – great stories, many of them, but often covering just one small aspect of our work.
We might talk about fundamental research into cancer, or putting biological findings into action as new treatments, or trialling out drugs in patients – but rarely can we convey how all these elements interact to take us from scientific discovery to improved patient care.
So this week’s Panorama programme, Can you cure my cancer?, is a fantastic opportunity for us. It gives us a rare chance to talk about the ICR’s research in the round, and to get across in some detail how closely we work with our partner hospital, The Royal Marsden.
The programme not only shows how our science drives exciting clinical trials of experimental treatments, but also that the work of ICR researchers does not end once a new treatment enters the clinic.
In the film, ICR scientists sit with colleagues at The Royal Marsden to interpret genetic data and help turn it into a plan for a patient’s treatment, samples from patients move back into the lab for analysis and further research, and at every step the science not only feeds clinical advances but also learns from them.
The original idea for the programme was just a short news package about the ICR’s Tumour Profiling Unit – a centre run by Dr Amanda Swain for analysing a cancer’s DNA and providing clues about how to tailor treatment. But the BBC quickly realised that you couldn’t tell a story about tumour profiling without showing the clinical trials that the DNA findings feed into, and it was impossible to discuss those trials without being drawn into the discovery work that makes targeted drugs possible in the first place. All of a sudden, an hour-long Panorama special was born.
Filming the programme was a serious marathon effort – mainly for the BBC themselves of course, but also for the teams at the ICR and The Royal Marsden who helped make it happen. The BBC spent the best part of two years following patients on trials, interviewing their clinical teams and the researchers whose work underpinned their treatments, and filming the research itself in ICR labs. Setting up live filming of one of our studies using mice, as part of our research into childhood cancer, was a particular challenge – with the cameras trailing our fantastically patient researchers through a complex, time-pressured experiment that involved three different labs, high-tech scanners and radioactive tracers.
The film illustrates much more vividly than any one-off news story the impact that our research has on the physical and emotional wellbeing of people who are being treated for cancer. These are patients who go to other people’s funerals while continuing to stay healthy after treatment on clinical trials, who talk of ‘miraculous science’, and are grateful not only for the benefits they gain from treatment, but for the chance to contribute to medical benefits for others like them.
None of this would be possible without the uniquely close relationship between the ICR and The Royal Marsden. The film tells the story of that partnership through the working lives of the clinician scientists who live and breathe it. These are doctors who devote much of their careers to research, and work as scientists at the ICR while still treating patients at The Royal Marsden. They’re the essential glue that holds our two organisations together, and it’s great that the programme provides a showcase for their passion and commitment.
There’s some great stuff about Dr Louis Chesler’s research into new treatments for childhood cancer, a stirring interview with Professor Johann de Bono about the potential for a new generation of cancer cures, and fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses into how the research of Professor Kevin Harrington and Dr Udai Banerji is helping to match treatments to the genetic profile of patients’ cancers.
There’s something else I really like about the Panorama programme. It reveals the attempt to tailor targeted treatments to individual patients as a creative, human endeavour, at times punctuated by wonderful highs as patients who appeared to have run out of options respond to a new treatment, and at others frustrated by the size of the challenge that cancer represents, and the limits of our scientific and technical knowledge.
Our research into cancer hasn’t cracked it yet – there are still too many patients who can’t be treated effectively. But there has been massive progress; median survival from cancer has leapt from five years to ten in considerably less than a decade.
It will be a while before we get another chance to showcase the work of the ICR and The Royal Marsden so completely as in this week’s Panorama. I definitely feel that all the effort that went into the programme was worth it – and I hope the researchers, doctors, patients and broadcasters who made it possible do too.
But in the meantime, don’t expect us to go quiet. I hope you’ll be hearing many more stories from us about how our individual research studies are taking us a step closer to better cancer treatment.
Can you cure my cancer? We’re working on it.
You can read more about the stories behind the researchers on BBC Panorama on our site. The programme is available online at the BBC Panorama page, here.
Richard Hoey is Director of Communications at the ICR.
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