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Screening key to controlling cancer sooner

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by Cancer Research UK | News

15 September 2003

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The new boss of Britain’s leading cancer charity predicts developments in detecting four of the most feared cancers will see death rates fall in under a decade.

Speaking at a special press briefing, Professor Alex Markham, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, says a programme of early detection, improved treatments and effective prevention messages will contribute to the vision of bringing the disease under control in the UK within two generations.

He will highlight improvements in screening for breast and cervical cancer, new initiatives to introduce a screening programme for bowel cancer and more research into the benefits of early detection for prostate cancer as key measures to achieving the goal.

The news comes on the day Cancer Research UK underwrites up to £1 million for a new trial looking into prostate cancer screening. The money is part of a record £191 million spend on research into cancer, announced by the charity in its first audited accounts published today.

“This is an exciting time to be a cancer researcher. We are developing new therapies which will revolutionise the way patients are treated in the future, new screening methods to detect early stage disease and investing more time and energy into helping to prevent the disease occurring in the first place, and I’m proud to say Britain is at the forefront of progress,” says Prof Markham.

He predicts continued decline in deaths from breast cancer, with an extra 600 lives saved a year in England and Wales, as the national screening programme extends its scope to women up to the age of 70. Improvements in the way mammography images are taken will also have an impact.

And the number of women prevented from developing cervical cancer will reach an all time high thanks to new techniques such as liquid based cytology being introduced across the country to improve the quality of screening.

But Prof Markham thinks one of the biggest contributions to controlling cancer in the coming years will come from developments in screening for bowel cancer and new studies into prostate cancer.

Cancer Research UK scientists have played a leading role in providing the Government with evidence on the effectiveness of bowel cancer screening. A national screening programme is now likely to be introduced within the next five years, following evidence on which screening technique will be the best to use. If flexible sigmoidoscopy is introduced it could prevent some 5,000 cases of the disease each year in the UK. If faecal occult blood testing is adopted it could lead to a substantial reduction in deaths from the disease.

And over the next decade Prof Markham believes further research into prostate cancer detection and treatment will provide important answers on how to best manage the disease, which is the second biggest cause of cancer death in UK men. Cancer Research UK is investing in studies that will develop new ways of preventing, detecting and treating prostate cancer, including a new trial looking into the benefits of prostate cancer screening.

The study will extend an existing trial called ProtecT (Prostate testing for cancer Treatment), funded by the NHS Health Technology Assessment programme, which was launched in 2001 to find the best treatment for early prostate cancer.

Men aged 50-69 from 400 general practices in nine centres in the UK are being invited for a PSA (Prostate Specific Antigen) test. Those with raised levels of PSA who are found to have prostate cancer are being treated with active monitoring, radiotherapy or surgery.

Ethical permission is now being sought for a new arm of the trial, which will recruit another 400 general practices from the nine centres across the UK. The data gathered from the study could allow for a detailed investigation of the impact of early diagnosis and treatment and the benefits that future population screening for prostate cancer could achieve.

He says: “There are few international issues in health care as controversial as prostate cancer screening. But the high quality research needed to answer the debate has been lacking until now. The new trial will finally reveal whether screening the population for prostate cancer can save lives and if the benefits of screening out-weigh the costs.”

“There are now hundreds of thousands of people alive and well who have survived cancer in this country. They are testimony to the success of research.

“Our aim at Cancer Research UK is to grow that number by half a million by the end of this decade. We will do it through early detection of breast, cervical, and bowel cancers, by improving our information on prostate cancer and by developing new treatments. We will continue to create an environment where people are no longer frightened by the very word ‘cancer’ and prevent the disease by encouraging people to give up smoking, be careful in the sun, eat healthily and exercise regularly.”

His comments come on the day the charity publishes its first audited accounts since it was formed from the merger of the Cancer Research Campaign and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund in February 2002. They show a growth in income and money for scientific research up by £27 million.

Lynne Robb, Finance Director at Cancer Research UK says: “The major challenge at merger was to grow our income to thereby increase the money available for science and as the figures show, we’ve met this commitment.

“At a time when many charities and research establishments are under real financial pressure, our focus on efficiency has allowed us to deliver most of our increased income directly into our key activity – research.”

The charity’s Chairman Baroness Hayman says: “The figures are quite remarkable. They prove the wisdom of the merger and show the faith the British public have in us to deliver world-class research. I do believe staff supported by our many donors and volunteers will rise to the challenges ahead.”

Prof Markham adds: “Cancer is public enemy number one in Britain and we at Cancer Research UK, working with others, will continue to reduce deaths from the disease and empower people, through properly researched programmes, to take greater control of their own destinies by adopting a healthy lifestyle.

“We won’t do it over night or alone, but I believe it is possible to have cancer under control in this country in the lifetime of my children’s children”.