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NCRI 2016: What we learned from the UK’s largest cancer conference


We consider what the NCRI conference tells us about the future of cancer treatment.

Posted on 14 November, 2016 by Graham Shaw

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The National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference 2016 has closed its doors for another year and researchers, doctors, patients and students who attended will be thinking about the exciting research reported during the four days in Liverpool.

There’s always so much to see at the NCRI conference and this year was no exception, but what struck me was the careful thought these eminent researchers have given to how their work filters out to the wider world.

There was one overriding message which came across again and again – the need to make sure that research is carried through to the clinic to improve outcomes for patients.

At a conference filled with scientists it might be easy for the focus to be firmly on the latest exciting discoveries, and perhaps on congratulating each other on a job well done.

But the NCRI conference never allowed its attention to wonder from what research means to patients – the only thing that really matters.

Patient input

I attended a 'Dragon's Den' session where Professor Judith Bliss, Director of the Clinical Trials and Statistics Unit here at The Institute of Cancer Research, came face to face with patient advocates to discuss ways to improve clinical trials.

The ICR carries out a wide range of clinical trials research with our partner The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust. The session gave patients the opportunity to feed back on their experiences of being diagnosed and treated for cancer, and the sort of information they would like to see in order to make informed decisions about their treatment.

These important insights could help researchers design better trials that could encourage more patients to participate.

The psychological effects of cancer on patients and their families were also addressed. A session on palliative care in cancer questioned some of the treatment strategies that are recommended for patients who are not going to get better.

Palliative treatment is meant to alleviate pain and help patients be comfortable in their final days, but it isn’t always based on robust clinical evidence, and some interventions may be doing more harm than good. We need to think carefully about whether we are over-treating patients, and if more humane options could be considered.

Communicating about cancer

A thought-provoking parallel session looked at how we talk about cancer and the problems, challenges and opportunities that arise in communication.

Andrew Graystone, a writer, former BBC broadcaster and patient with prostate cancer discussed the language used around cancer, and how these words frame how we think about the disease.

Cancer is seen as a battle, a war, an enemy that we need to defeat. This sort of military language is emotionally charged and can galvanise patients and encourage people to take action – for example by giving money to cancer research – but could it be hampering us too?

Using military metaphors, patients must be brave and fight the disease, but what if you don’t feel brave? And could thinking about cancer as a vicious enemy breed complacency about the disease – that there is very little we as people can do to prevent it?

Considering alternative language could help patients who don’t like the idea of fighting their own body and encourage us to make changes to our lifestyles that could stop us getting cancer in the first place. These preventative measures are often as important in the fight against cancer but they don’t always fit in with the cancer as battle narrative.


One of the biggest challenges in modern cancer treatment is the ability of tumours to adapt, evolve and become drug resistant. Cancers are a moving target, evolving and adapting to even the most sophisticated targeted treatments.

Finding new approaches to treating cancer that can overcome evolution and drug resistance is the central theme of the ICR’s and The Royal Marsden’s new research strategy.

One such new approach aimed at blocking the whole process of cancer evolution was showcased at the conference. This new way of treating cancer could help drugs remain more effective for longer, and the session about it created a real buzz in the auditorium.

Professor Paul Workman, Chief Executive of the ICR, spoke at the session, which focused on a family of proteins called APOPBEC which can help cancers evolve to evade treatment. He described the ICR’s work to investigate the structure of the protein APOBEC3B, as a key step in efforts to design drugs against it.

Mutations to APOBEC proteins have been detected in half of cancer cases so treatments to counter their effects could be an important step forward. More work is needed but overcoming tumour evolution and drug resistance has the potential to deliver big step forwards in cancer treatment.

The findings from the NCRI conference will be chewed over by scientists and clinicians from across the UK and beyond. For me, it was inspiring to see the commitment these researchers bring to their work, and to get a real sense of how the latest findings will come to shape cancer treatment. 

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