What does the future of cancer treatment hold?
That was the subject of discussion last week as some of our researchers here at The Institute of Cancer Research and our partner hospital The Royal Marsden appeared together at The Times Cheltenham Science Festival.
It was the first time that the ICR and The Royal Marsden have held an event at the festival, and we were keen to get across a range of the most exciting translational and clinical research that we conduct together. We decided to focus on some of the work conducted together within our two virtual centres – the Cancer Research UK Centre at the ICR and The Royal Marsden, and the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre.
Dr Marco Gerlinger opened the event by setting out the biggest challenge facing cancer researchers and clinicians at the moment – cancer’s ability to evolve and eventually resist treatment. He explained how in some cancers no two cells may be the same, with tumours made up of multiple ‘clones’ all with different combinations of mutations. These clones are capable of evolving to adapt to new circumstances, and that’s how drug resistance develops. One way to tackle this is to target the environment the cancer is in rather than the cancer itself, and another is to use combinations of targeted treatments. You can read more about this work in a feature article on our new Centre for Evolution and Cancer.
Our second speaker, Professor Kevin Harrington, then went on to explain some of the advances in his field – radiotherapy. New techniques for the delivery of radiotherapy mean we can now guide radiation in a much more targeted fashion, with the hope that we will soon be able to do so by using real time-imaging of the tumour. The ICR and The Royal Marsden have recently been announced as the first in the UK to gain access to a state-of-the-art radiotherapy system which should allow us to do this. He illustrated why that matters by talking about patients with lung cancer, who have the inconvenient habit of breathing when receiving radiotherapy, significantly changing the position of their tumour.
Dr James Larkin of The Royal Marsden finished the opening discussions by explaining about his work using immunotherapy to direct a patient’s own immune system against a tumour. This field of research is still at an early stage, but new breakthroughs are happening all of the time and Dr Larkin said he believed treating cancers with immunotherapy could potentially be as promising as radiotherapy and surgery when it comes to curing patients, at least for some cancers.
The floor was then opened to the audience to ask our expert panel anything on the future of cancer treatment. This was my first time attending the science festival, and one of the things that really impressed me at the events I went to was the amount of discussion with the audience. At our event the questions really covered the breadth of cancer research, treatment and policy, covering not just science but a range of social and ethical issues from an audience who were clearly very engaged with the topic.
Some of the questions that most interested me touched on the benefits of working in partnership between a hospital and a research institute, the role of competition in academic research, the competing costs of different types of cancer treatments and the role of NICE in deciding what counts as value for money for the NHS. In fact there were so many questions that the three speakers stayed on at the end to go to the festival’s ‘Talking Point’ to continue the discussions. I could fill a whole week of blog posts with the interesting responses our speakers gave to these questions!
I really enjoyed the event, learning a lot from what the speakers had to say and the level of audience engagement. I had chance to spend the whole day at the festival, attending a few other events, and speaking to researchers at the more ‘hands on’ exhibitions.
The ICR is looking at expanding the amount of public engagement work that we do; this blog is just one of the ways in which we are increasingly sharing the exciting research that we are doing. With events like Cheltenham Science Festival on the annual science calendar, I think we’re going to have a really great time doing so.
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