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News digest – standard packs are ‘go’, immunotherapy advances, risk-reducing surgery, and more

by Nick Peel | Analysis

14 March 2015

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  • No Smoking Day brought us the news we’d hoped for: MPs finally passed legislation to introduce standardised cigarette packaging – a great result. The announcement was covered widely by the media.

  • Immediately, and predictably, tobacco companies threatened to sue the Government over the new laws. But according to legal experts, they’re doomed to failure.
  • In other tobacco-related news, researchers at the University of Stirling calculated that NHS Stop Smoking Services saved up to 18,000 lives in a year, by helping people kick an addiction that kills half of long-term users.
  • The BBC reported that hospital grounds in Northern Ireland are to go completely smoke-free.
  • But could the world be smoke-free by 2040? Experts think it could if governments pulled together to properly implement international agreements.
  • It was an exciting week for cancer immunotherapy. On Monday, new US research suggested that combining two ‘next generation’ immune-targeting drugs with radiotherapy could prevent resistance and prolong survival for melanoma patients (although this needs confirmation in clinical trials). Medical News Today reports.
  • And the Government announced plans to ‘fast track’ one of these drugs – pembrolizumab – under a new ‘Early Access’ scheme. Both are now available on the NHS (the other being ipilimumab).
  • Researchers are beginning to unravel the mystery of why only a minority of people respond to these exciting new drugs, Science Magazine reports.
  • Meanwhile, a trial of 12 patients suggested that immunotherapy could also hold substantial promise for patients with a form of brain tumour. The Daily Mail interviewed one of the patients on the trial who is still alive nine years after being diagnosed.
  • And over in the US, the FDA approved another new immunotherapy drug for a form of lung cancer.
  • We spotted two excellent articles about a tricky and complex situation: the decision to have risk-reducing surgery if you carry inherited faults in one of your BRCA genes. The first followed YouTube presenter Claira Hermet as she took the decision to have a double mastectomy. It featured in the Guardian – you can watch it below (but please note it contains nudity):

  • The second is a beautifully written piece in Mosaic, exploring unfolding research on the origins of ovarian cancer, and how it affects two women’s decisions over whether to have their ovaries removed to reduce their chances of cancer. Read it here.
  • Worrying news: MPs warned that the Department of Health and NHS England have “lost momentum” in improving cancer services in the last two years. The BBC and the Mail Online covered the findings of the report.
  • The ‘dogs ‘sniffing out’ cancer’ story appeared again: as we’ve said before, it’s unlikely that canines will be doing clinical rounds in the future, but how they detect the smelly molecules given off by cancer cells could lead to ‘electronic noses’ to detect tumours.
  • Dogs, we’ve heard of. But tiny worms sniffing your urine to detect cancer? It couldn’t happen, could it? “Japan Researchers Screen for Cancer Using Nematodes and Urine”, reported The Wall Street Journal – obviously this research is a long way from prime-time.
  • This touching article in the Guardian featured the story of how a family turned the experience of their son’s diagnosis with a brain tumour into a computer game.
  • Failings in the social care system could mean that around one in 10 cancer patients are being left housebound for lack of help, according to a report covered by the Telegraph and the Mail Online.
  • There was a lot of coverage of US research claiming to find a link between a family history of prostate cancer, and an increased risk of breast cancer. Medical News Today had the pick of the coverage; there’s more about genes and breast cancer risk on our website.
  • GP Online has a worrying report about signs that NHS care might be being ‘rationed’ for smokers and obese people.
  • Tech giant Apple launched its expensive new smartwatch this week, along with a raft of new apps and software. One of those was ResearchKit, which – with a user’s permission – gives scientists access to data collected from people’s iPhones to use in population research.
  • And the health-tracking buzz around ‘wearables’ continued with this Daily Mail report on a futuristic bra that can “deliver cancer drugs”. But as with any new piece of technology or medical development, rigorous clinical trials need to be carried out to test whether the bra would provide any benefit for drug delivery.
  • NICE approved the use of the blood cancer drug obinutuzumab (Gazyvaro) in combination with chemotherapy for patients with a type of leukaemia. PMLiVE has more on the decision.
  • Reuters looked at the credibility of online products sold as ‘personalised’ treatment advice in the US.
  • The Science is Vital campaign compared international data on government research spending. The UK didn’t come out very well, the Guardian reports.
  • The US’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s blog interviewed Professor Charles Sawyers about his role in developing breakthrough leukaemia drug imatinib.
  • The Institute of Cancer Research’s blog looked at whether a new type of scan that measures the ‘stiffness’ or ‘stretchiness’ of tissues could help to diagnose different types of brain cancer.
  • And the ever-excellent HealthNewsReview looked at last week’s story on awareness of ‘overdetection’ in cancer screening, highlighting a useful video explainer from the researchers themselves.
  • Two excellent articles from the Guardian looked at the evidence around homeopathy (spoiler: there isn’t any).

And finally

  • As the dust settles on the campaign for standard packs, and the evidence is clear that they work, there still appear to be some who have questions. The Spectator was on hand to debunk one particular theory.