We have been working with the BBC’s Panorama team for nearly two years. Over that time they have met scores of scientists and clinicians here at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, and our partner hospital, The Royal Marsden – taking in hundreds of conversations and activities across our sites in Chelsea and Sutton, carried out both in our research laboratories and in patient consultation rooms.
For me the strongest and most important message that comes across in Can You Cure My Cancer? is the success and impact of our partnerships – with The Royal Marsden, a world-leading cancer hospital, with the patients who volunteer for clinical trials of the pioneering new drugs emerging from the lab, and also with the pharmaceutical companies that sponsor several of the drugs in the clinical trials featured in the programme.
Our partnerships are very much part of our culture and are critical to the success of so much of what we do. Together with our world-class in-house research, partnership is one of the reasons why the ICR is the top-rated higher education institution in the UK according to the definitive national evaluation of research quality across UK universities.
Our partnership model with The Royal Marsden involves some of our ICR team leaders splitting their time between running their laboratory research at the ICR while also treating patients in the hospital. Professor Johann de Bono, Professor Kevin Harrington, Dr Udai Banerji and Dr Louis Chesler all have this dual clinician scientist role, and are featured in the programme.
This way of working brings a host of benefits to our research and impact. It promotes lab to clinic translation and is a crucially important part of our ‘team science’ approach – in which experts in different scientific areas come together to achieve a common goal.
It also means that alongside our industry partners we can run both early-stage proof of concept and later-stage definitive trials that are essential to progress innovative new targeted drugs – such as olaparib which is featured in the programme – which are now proving to be very effective and well tolerated. This would not be possible without laboratory scientists, clinical doctors and patients working together to rapidly translate our discoveries from bench to bedside.
The clinical impact of the new generation of cancer drugs is made vividly clear in the programme. It is impossible to see the story of nine-year-old Sophie – who was treated successfully at The Royal Marsden by a clinical team including Dr Chesler, using a targeted drug which his team helped take to the clinic – and fail to be moved by the potential of cancer research to influence people’s lives.
Our researchers are not insulated from the people we are trying to benefit. Stories like Sophie’s are an incredible motivation for our scientists – they are the reason we work so hard to find new treatments, and one of the reasons for our success. Patients are not passive beneficiaries of our work – they are our partners, too. It is really their passion to help us find the new generation of cancer treatments, their active participation in our research, which allows our clinical breakthroughs to be made – commonly benefiting the patients in the trials themselves as well as future generations.
A very strong scientific theme that is illustrated very well in the programme is that the more we discover about cancer, the more it becomes apparent that we need to extend our discovery and use of personalised treatments – ones that are targeted to the specific genetic mutations found in individual patients’ cancers and are shown to cause and drive the cancers. The future of targeted treatments is likely to be their use in drug combinations, to overcome the huge challenge of cancer’s drug resistance, and that means we need many more options than we have now.
Understanding the mutations that drive cancer – and those that help cancers resist treatment – is the focus of our Tumour Profiling Unit, which is featured in the programme and explained by Dr Amanda Swain. The trials filmed by the BBC show vividly how we are making real progress in developing new personalised treatments.
For instance, use of the drug olaparib in patients with BRCA-positive ovarian cancer is based on pioneering preclinical work at the ICR. And the programme also highlights treatments that target the products of the genes MEK and ALK, and in both cases clinic al progress has exploited preclinical scientific discoveries at the ICR.
Can You Cure My Cancer? makes it clear that the big challenge we face in the coming years is the ability of cancers to change, evolve and become progressively harder to treat.
We know that for many patients, cancer’s ability to acquire new genetic mutations to resist treatments means that they run out of treatment options. Addressing the challenge of drug resistance is a cornerstone of our strategy in the coming years. This will involve use of combinations of targeted drugs and immune-based therapy, as discussed in the programme by Royal Marsden Clinician Dr James Larkin.
But the overall message of the programme is a very positive one. It shows the strides we are making towards new targeted treatments – and crucially demonstrates the role of our partners, especially people with cancer, in making this possible.
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.
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