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NCRI Cancer Conference 2009: a review

by Oliver Childs | Analysis

11 November 2009

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Regular readers of this blog will have noticed a flurry of posts over the past month covering the 2009 NCRI Cancer Conference, which took place at the beginning of October. Such events are a fantastic opportunity to hear about the latest research and exciting new strategies to beat cancer.

In this short video, the conference’s scientific chair Professor Ron Laskey sums up his view of the event:


We’ve also put together a review of the key themes, ideas and advances that we found exciting. Doubtless we’ll be hearing a lot more about many of these over the coming years.

’30th birthday’ of a tumour suppressor

The conference provided time not only to discuss some of the most exciting and promising cancer research going on today, but to also re-visit some of the big research achievements of the past and see where they’ve led.

Without doubt, one of the hot topics over the four packed days was “the 30th birthday of p53”, as Professor Karen Vousden put it at one point. Professor Vousden is the director of  Cancer Research UK’s Beatson Institute in Glasgow, and a leading authority on p53.

You can find out how the discovery of this small protein in 1979 triggered an explosion in our understanding of how cells grow and divide in our this post in our High-Impact Science series, including a video interview with Professor Sir David Lane, who first identified this important “guardian of the genome”.

If all you knew about p53 was the number of times it was mentioned during this year’s conference, then you’d certainly appreciate that it is subject of intense research. In a particularly interesting presentation, Dr Jim Norman talked about how p53 can help cancer cells to spread, as he explains in this video:


Our understanding of p53 has increased dramatically over the past 30 years. And delegates were treated to talks on the new and ingenious ways scientists are now developing to affect how it works. It’s clear that p53 research is now maturing, and we hope to see potential treatments based on this work starting to come through into the clinic in the near future.

A new model of tumour development

In one of the most exciting sessions of the whole conference, Professor Larry Norton presented a completely new way of thinking about how cancer develops and spreads.

Professor Norton proposes a model of “self-seeding” for explaining how cancers grow and spread – not only can cancer cells break off from a tumour and start new cancers elsewhere in the body, but they also return to the original tumour and help it grow, like an unwanted prodigal son.  He believes that this explanation could help doctors better understand how cancers change over time, and therefore tailor treatment accordingly.

We managed to catch Professor Norton after his presentation and spoke to him about what’s likely to become a growing area of research – find out more in Nell’s post.

Improving clinical trials of cancer treatments

If Professor Norton’s session was among the most exciting, then Professor Ian Tannock’s talk on cancer clinical trials was among the most thought-provoking and controversial. Clinical trials compare new treatments with current techniques to see which is best for patients. And, obviously, trials have a crucial role in bringing new treatments to patients.

In his eye-opening presentation, Professor Tannock questioned whether traditional clinical trial designs are working hard enough for patients. For instance, are modern clinical trials too focused on finding small differences in survival and not looking at how treatments affect quality of life?

There’s more about his talk, including a video interview with Professor Tannock in this post.

From personalised medicine…

In the conference halls and in the corridors, over breakfast, lunch and dinner, the conversation and debate were frequently about the concept of ‘personalised medicine’.

‘Personalisation’ of medicine involves understanding the biology of the individual – and their cancer –  to help treat them better. This could mean finding improved ways to diagnose cancer, developing tests to predict someone’s response to treatment, or making more targeted drugs.

Many of the speakers this year touched on this topic. Professor Paul Workman – Director of Cancer Research UK’s Centre for Cancer Therapeutics at The Institute of Cancer Research – gave a fascinating talk on ‘drugging the cancer genome’. He reckons we’re at an important crossroads in cancer research – with the completion of the Human Genome Project six years ago and our growing knowledge many of genes involved in cancer, we’re increasingly able to develop treatments geared towards the genetics of individual tumours.

…to a “universal cure for cancer”?

But others were keen to sound a note of caution about focussing research efforts purely on personalised medicine

For instance, Gerard Evan started his enthralling talk on models of human cancer by stating that there was an alternative – but “complementary” – approach to beating cancer that focuses on pinpointing the “commonly shared elements” of all cancers, rather than looking at what makes each person’s cancer different.

Professor Evan has been carrying out some ingenious work in the laboratory on a gene called Myc, which he believes might be one such commonly shared element that scientists will be able to target with drugs in the future..

A growing success story: PARP inhibitors

The concept of personalised medicine has been around for some time, but this year’s conference showed how we are finally beginning to see theoretical insights about personalising medicine translate into patient benefit. A stand-out example is the PARP inhibitors. [link]

Originally developed as a treatment for some types of breast and ovarian cancer, scientists are beginning to realise that these drugs could actually treat many more cancers than first thought.

You can read about some of the latest developments in PARP inhibitor research in Alison’s post.

Biomarker buzz

Beating cancer isn’t just about new drugs. It’s also about working out who is most at risk of disease, and developing ways to monitor cancer at an individual level. Much of the buzz this year centred on ‘biomarkers’ – things in the body that can be measured and that tell us something specific about a person’s cancer, and how it changes in response to treatment.

A biomarker can be one of many different things – a protein, a gene, or even an imaging system that measures certain changes in the body or in tumours. For example, PET scanning picks up differences in metabolism between healthy and cancerous cells – there’s more about metabolism below.

Similar to how meteorologists predict the weather based on global patterns in weather systems, and tell you if you might need an umbrella later in the week, a cancer biomarker can tell a doctor the likely course of disease and help them plan treatment.

In her talk at the NCRI conference, Cancer Research UK’s Professor Caroline Dive outlined a particularly novel approach in biomarker research. Her group is looking at ways to measure cancer cells in the bloodstream that have broken off from tumours – so-called ‘circulating tumour cells’. They hope to develop a simple blood test that will help doctors measure how well treatment is working, which will help them decide the future course of therapy.

You can read about this research and watch an interview with Professor Dive here.

Unusual metabolism

‘Metabolism’ is the collective term for the set of chemical reactions that generate energy and keep cells – and us – alive. Metabolism in tumours has long been an area of interest to scientists, as cancer cells seem to generate energy differently from normal cells.

Many scientists therefore hope to understand how cancer cells differ from normal cells in their metabolism, so they can pinpoint ways to fight cancer by cutting-off or interfering with its energy supply. So it was fitting that there were several energetic presentations on the latest thinking and advances in cancer cell metabolism at this year’s NCRI conference .

Sharing expertise to beat cancer

It was encouraging to see so many different cancer experts uniting and sharing their expertise at the conference. From a leading researcher’s last-minute talk about how chromosomes become unstable in cancer, to a play about communication between doctors and patients, the sheer breadth and scope of the conference was astounding.

We couldn’t possibly cover every single talk of this jam-packed 4-day event, but there were a few other talks that particularly interested us:

If you want to know more, the conference programme – which lists every session – can be found on the NCRI website.

NCRI Cancer Conference 2009: An opportunity to take stock

It was fantastic to see many hundreds of experts from around the world united by the shared desire to beat cancer.

It is clear that we know more about cancer than ever before, and this knowledge has already resulted in new treatments and ways of preventing cancer.

But there is a lot more to do and many more lives to be saved. Particularly striking was the sheer number of different approaches to tackling cancer discussed at the conference. Cancer is not a simple disease, and only by working together will we beat it.

Cancer Research UK is proud to play a significant role in the UK, and across the world, in making a difference to the lives of people with cancer. We look forward to seeing even more progress in beating cancer at next year’s conference.