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News digest – oesophageal cancer, HRT, Leveson and more

by Henry Scowcroft | Analysis

21 January 2012

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If you missed the news this week, read this article

Amid the drama of phone hacking, economic gloom, ‘responsible’ capitalism and sinking cruise ships, the week has also seen several intriguing stories in the world of cancer research.

Here’s our regular digest of the latest developments – just click on the links for the full low-down.

HRT and breast cancer

The link between hormone replacement therapy and breast cancer was back in the news, as researchers published a critique of the landmark Million Women Study (which we help fund). In response, the Study’s authors mounted a robust defence of their work, pointing out that theirs was one among many other studies to find that HRT increases the risk of the disease.

Our news feed covered both sides of the story, while Judith Potts in the Telegraph wondered what to make of it all.

Drugs ’cause cancers to spread’?

Somewhat alarming headlines on Wednesday suggested that certain targeted cancer drugs might inadvertently cause cancers to spread. But we felt this was a bit of a leap, given that the stories were based on lab research not patient data.

In fact, the study focused on a type of blood-vessel cell called a ‘pericyte’, and its role in the spread of cancer. And the findings of increased rates of spread haven’t yet been observed in patients, as our expert Professor Kebs Hodivala-Dilke pointed out in a more balanced take on our news feed.

Detecting oesophageal cancer earlier

A study on detecting oesophageal cancer early, which we co-funded with the Medical Research Council, showed that a fluorescent dye could be used to spot the disease. We put out a press release to accompany it, which was picked up by several news outlets, including the Daily Mail and The Sun.

New gene linked to oesophageal cancer

Sticking with oesophageal cancer, researchers in London pinned down the gene behind tylosis, a rare skin condition linked to the disease. This discovery will lead to new insights into how oesophageal cancer develops, and – possibly – new ways to treat it. Cancer Research UK helped fund the study, and our news feed has the details.

Understanding side effects

An intriguing story appeared on Thursday. An international team of researchers, including some we fund, found out how vemurafenib – a new targeted melanoma drug – also causes some people to develop a second, less serious form of skin cancer. Their results also showed how, in principle, this could be avoided.

We think this is a great example of the difference between the new generation of cancer drugs and the previous one – researchers are already starting to identify and work around problems like side-effects and drug resistance, even before the drugs are in routine use.

New drug for ovarian cancer

On Tuesday, several papers got very excited by the news that the European Medicines Agency had licensed a drug called bevacizumab (a.k.a. Avastin) for ovarian cancer. The drug is now available in the UK via the Cancer Drugs Fund. This is a welcome step forward, as trials suggest the drug can delay the cancer from coming back in women with advanced disease.

However, as our expert Professor Iain McNeish told reporters, there are still questions over its use, particularly whether the drug – which is very expensive – actually prolongs life overall. Still though, we urgently need new treatments for the disease, and this drug looks promising.

Statins and cancer?

The Express ran a front page about how statins – used to treat heart disease – can ‘beat cancer’. This unfortunate headline was the result of a very complex bit of lab work looking at the role of a protein called p53 in a cellular pathway called the mevalonate pathway. Without getting bogged down in the detail, it didn’t show that statins can be used to treat cancer. Our spokesperson, Dr Jo Owens, had the final word in the story:

“To say that statins are a potential new cancer treatment is to oversimplify a very complicated picture. These are laboratory findings and, as the researchers themselves point out, there’s a long way to go to find out if they apply to patients”.

The Leveson Inquiry

Which leads us on to our final story of the week. In the wake of the phone hacking scandal, the government commissioned the Leveson Inquiry to look at standards in the media.

One of the less headline-grabbing aspects of the inquiry is its investigation into standards in science reporting. Our colleagues at the Wellcome Trust invited us, together with the Association of Medical Research, to help draw together some thoughts as to how the situation can be improved. You can read our joint submission here (pdf).

That’s all – see you next week,