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The National Cancer Research Institute's Cancer Conference

Sun, 6th Nov 2011

Kat Arney

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Kat Arney offers a roundup of the latest news, and what to expect from the National Cancer Research Institute's annual cancer conference, held this year in Liverpool...

Kat -   This is the National UK cancer conference, so it’s really big and there’s loads of stuff.  There are loads of doctors, nurses, scientists, cancer patients. All sorts of people connected with cancer research are coming here today, and over the next couple of days, to talk about the latest developments, find out what’s going on and set up collaborations.  It’s the 10th anniversary of the NCRI, the National Cancer Research Institute, and that’s the umbrella organisation for all the cancer funders in the UK.  So it’s shaping up to be a really big and impressive conference.

NCRI Cancer ConferenceAlready we’ve had some stories coming out of the conference.  There’s been some news about increasing rates of cervical cancer among young women in their 20s.  Now we have a very good screening program for cervical cancer and it prevents many deaths by detecting dodgy cells before they actually become cancerous.  And initially, this screening program did cause a drop in cancer rates in young women, but the rates are on the rise again.  The majority of cases of cervical cancer are caused by HPV, the human papillomavirus, and this is usually a sexually transmitted infection.  So scientists maybe think that a lack of safe sex in young women might be the cause.  Be safe out there ladies and help to reduce your cancer risk!

Also, there’s a strong focus here at the conference on personalised medicine, and we’ll be talking a lot more about that later in the show.  This is about testing tumours for specific faulty genes or molecules, and finding out which drugs are most likely to be effective.  This is really moving towards treating cancer as a molecular disease, not just a one-size-fits-all thing.  So instead of saying, “Well, you have bowel cancer or you have breast cancer…” testing someone’s tumour and saying “Ah!  You have this, this and this faulty gene, so you need this, this and this drug.”

We’ll be talking later in the show to Professor Chris Marshall, who has done a lot of work over the past 30 years into cell signalling, and trying to understand how these signals go wrong and how we might target them to treat cancer.  He’s just done an excellent talk this afternoon all about that.

We’ve also got a very interesting talk going on about chemoprevention, from John Potter  [Prof. John D. Potter, University of Washington, Seattle, USA and Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand].  This is the idea of preventing cancer using drugs.  We’ve been very successful with preventing things like heart disease using statins, but much less successful with cancer.  There is some evidence that a breast cancer drug called Tamoxifen, and now new drugs called aromatase inhibitors might help to prevent breast cancer in women at high risk.  But there haven’t been many other successes like this.  So he asks “why aren’t we being successful, do we need to completely rethink our ideas about how to prevent cancer?”

So it’s looking like it’s going to be a week packed with talks, posters, networking events and there’s even art exhibitions exploring issues around cancer and how it effects people.  It’s shaping up to be a fantastic few days, and me and my team from Cancer Research UK are going to be covering all the top stories on our blog, so check it out to get all the breaking news.

Ben -   In some ways, it feels like we’re on the cusp of a sea change in attitudes towards cancer, because of personalised medicine, because of gene therapies.  It really does seem like we’re in a very exciting time.

Kat -   It’s a really, really exciting time.  If you look at when the human genome was sequenced, just a decade ago, it cost so much money – hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pounds – and it took ages.  And now we can sequence three cancer genomes in a week for a cost of around one thousand dollars.  So we can actually really start to analyse people’s tumours, figure out what’s gone wrong and work out the right drugs to treat them.  So there’s a lot of optimism in the field now of cancer researchers and cancer doctors.

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