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Abigail Ringer considers ongoing research being carried out by the Cambridge Cancer Centre and whether we are getting closer to a world without cancer.
On a winter evening I was curled up on the sofa with my old university magazine and one article in particular caught my attention: entitled ‘Man on a Mission’ the article describes the quest of Professor Richard Gilbertson, Director of the Cambridge Cancer Centre, to create a world without cancer.
What is cancer?
Anyone who can remember their school science lessons may recall that our bodies are made up of building blocks called cells. The production of new cells and the death of old cells is very carefully regulated by our DNA. From time to time a cell’s DNA goes wrong allowing the production of too many new cells. A tumour is formed from a mass of cells that have undergone unregulated growth. Some of these tumours can become cancer by invading surrounding tissues and recruiting blood vessels to support their growth.
Why is cancer rare in children?
Professor Gilbertson specialises in cancer in children. Cancer is recognised to be much rarer in children than in adults and Professor Gilbertson wants to know why: “One of the things that’s always puzzled me is why don’t children get cancer more? People say it’s because children don’t smoke or live for 70 years or do those things which cause mistakes in a cell’s DNA. I don’t buy that. I think it’s partly true. But there must be something that protects children in the design of their cells from actually getting cancer.”
A possible cure for cancer
For seven years, Professor Gilbertson and his team have been taking healthy cells in adults and children and bombarding the DNA to cause cancer. The results are astonishing. Unlike the adult’s cells, the child’s cells had something in them that protected them from developing cancer. Gilbertson is determined to find out what it is and the implications could be huge: “It’s terribly exciting, because if I can look into a child’s cells and work out the biology that is protecting that child’s cells from cancer, then maybe we could reproduce that in an adult cell with a drug. And if you do that, you’ve got a preventative for cancer. We are working on that right now.”
There is also much work in progress trying to improve way of achieving earlier diagnosis of cancer, which in most cases equates to better chances of successfully treating the cancer and therefore a better prognosis for the patient. The report describes work being carried out to develop way of screening for oesophageal cancer by using a tiny sponge to collect cells for testing; a breath test to detect lung cancer; and blood tests to detect DNA chances indicating cancer before the patient starts to develop symptoms.
I imagine that there are few of us who have not been left scarred by cancer in some way or another. My colleagues and I in the Clinical Negligence Team work with families whose lives have been impacted by cancer, when a delay in diagnosing and treating cancer has led to a worse outcome as a result of negligent medical treatment. To imagine a world where some cancers are preventable, or can at least be detected at the very earliest opportunity, brings hope for the future.