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  • Health & Medicine

Discovering new ways to prevent cancer

by Joe Dunckley | Analysis

28 July 2015

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Researchers gather to discuss innovative ideas for cancer prevention

More than four in 10 cases of cancer are preventable. And things like smoking, diet and the amount of exercise we take can all affect our risk.

These are often described as lifestyle choices, but the reality is more complex. A range of influences – from social situations to human psychology and biology – all affect the way we live our lives, making ‘choices’ seem, at times, incredibly difficult.

Faced with this challenge, research on preventing cancer through lifestyle changes requires some adventurous approaches. One of these is our Cancer Prevention Innovation Grant, a partnership with the BUPA Foundation, which is taking a new look at deciding which questions to fund.

Earlier this year we held a three-day workshop with a diverse group of researchers, including many from outside traditional cancer research fields, alongside innovative thinkers outside academia.

The goal was to pinpoint the best research ideas for further investigation – and then fund them.

Here’s what happened.

Facilitating fresh thinking

“It’s incredibly exciting to be in a room with very different people who all came to the same position through different routes,” says Dr Gozde Ozakinci, who is working on two projects funded through the scheme.

“New ideas come from the intersection,” agrees Professor Frank Kee, who directed the workshop. “Social scientists call it the Medici Effect, when you let people peer over the fence and get their fresh view on a shared problem. It’s why groups are so much smarter than their smartest members.”

This is a very different experience. Sometimes it puts you out of your comfort zone. But it was such a thrill!

– Dr Gozde Ozakinci

After two days identifying challenges and generating ideas, researchers used the final day to develop project proposals — and because funding decisions were made there and then, they had to be quick.

“You can’t just wait for inspiration,” Kee says, quoting the author Jack London. “You have to go after it with a club!”

But it’s not just the speed of developing the projects and the instant funding decisions that are accelerating this research. The research itself starts soon after the workshops, before any of the excitement is allowed to wear off, and is expected to conclude within a year.

“There is a huge need to get going very quickly and that adds pressure,” says Ozakinci. “As academics we usually have time to think about things and work up ideas. This is a very different experience. Sometimes it puts you out of your comfort zone. But it was such a thrill!”

So what innovative projects came out of the workshop?

The ‘Bank of Good Times’

Physical activity is one of the most important things we can do to protect ourselves against cancer, and many other diseases. But many people struggle to schedule the recommended amount into their lives. The Bank of Good Times wants to help inactive adults get past those difficulties when taking up a new activity for the first time.

The idea is that during an activity you capture the exhilaration, joy or simple contentment that it creates through photos, video and words. This bank of positive emotions can then be called upon in routine reminders. The idea is this might help those who are struggling to find the time or motivation to continue.

The team, led by our Cancer Prevention Fellow Dr Alice Forster at UCL, with experts in everything from marketing to psychology, hope to have at least a basic working version of the app available to download later this year.

#innerselfie: making future risk feel real

Damage to our cells, which can lead to cancer, accumulates as we grow up and grow older. So the earlier we adopt healthy habits, the better.


Getting the ideas down on paper.

For teenagers and young adults though, it can be hard to take risks seriously when the consequences feel a lifetime away. So a team led by Dr Abi Fisher at the UCL Health Behaviour Research Centre are investigating whether Virtual Reality (VR) can help kids get their heads around distant risks.

The most ambitious aspect of the project is looking to use the Occulus Rift system, and the team hope to bring together VR researchers and games developers to design a “future self” experience. The idea is to show users how the effects of different behaviours can stack up, and just what a difference healthier changes can make to their lives.

We’re only funding an initial exploratory phase of this project, but if the results look promising, the team hope to run a larger study to determine how the experience influences young people’s beliefs and behaviours.

IBAC: identifying the myths about how cancer is caused

Here at Cancer Research UK we’re very familiar with the persistent myths that circulate about cancer. From speculative causes to miracle ways to prevent and cure it, we’ve heard them all.

But what effect does belief in false risk factors have on our behaviour?

The proposed Incorrect Beliefs About Cancer (IBAC) tool aims to answer that. We already know a lot about public awareness of genuine risk factors. Our own Cancer Awareness Measure, for example, periodically surveys the public’s understanding of cancer. These data tell us whether attempts to improve awareness, or change behaviours, are really making a difference – and whether at a national level we are making progress over the years.

The team behind the new IBAC tool, led by Dr Sam Smith at Queen Mary University of London and Dr Lion Shahab at UCL, will survey thousands of tweets and articles about cancer on popular news websites — including the dreaded comments section – in order to find the top misconceptions about cancer.

With this list of the top myths, they hope to run IBAC as a monthly survey. The results should help us monitor the rise of myths and test whether our attempts to correct misconceptions are working.

Personalising cancer risk messages

So we’re learning about what the public know about cancer risk factors, and we’re trying new methods for getting the message to more people.

But how well are we targeting our existing health messages?


Discussion time.

When we’re given the same generic cancer prevention advice as everybody else, it can sometimes be hard to relate to. I want to know what I might do differently to reduce my risk. And when we do talk about personal cancer risk, it’s often about genetics — because a few genes, like BRCA, can have very dramatic effects.

But, for most of us, genetic insights are unlikely to help us take any practical steps to reduce our cancer risk. It is the lifestyle-related risk which we have the power to change.

So the team behind this project, led by Dr Juliet Usher-Smith at Cambridge, are developing a personalised risk calculator with an emphasis on showing us the difference that we can make to our own risk. The team will explore how different people respond to the tool, and the situations in which it would be most useful to be presented with such information.

What do politicians know?

There’s only so much that individuals can do to change the world. And sometimes a problem requires national action of the kind only a government has the power to take. .

Some prevention initiatives are only possible with the support of public funding and infrastructure like the NHS. And sometimes laws have to be passed – such as those restricting the ability of the tobacco industry to take advantage of young people.

So how well do our politicians understand cancer risk? The UPPP Project — Assessing politicians’ understanding, risk perceptions, and policy positions — aims to find out. Led by Dr Niamh Fitzgerald at Stirling, the team will use statements from parties and politicians to assess their understanding and positions on important issues chosen by advocacy groups and policy researchers.

As a campaigning charity ourselves, tools like this could help ensure that we talk to the right people about the right things. The UPPP Project will test out hot topics like alcohol policy and – if it proves to be useful – might provide a model for monitoring other policy areas too.

Are you an innovative thinker?

These kinds of exciting high-risk projects have 12 months for teams to scope out their initial ideas, collect pilot data and build new collaborations. The aim is for project teams apply to our other traditional funding streams to develop their ideas further.

This type of fast-paced multidisciplinary research funding highlights the innovative direction we’re heading as we tackle cancer on all fronts.

Think you might have something innovative to contribute to an exciting cancer prevention project?

Our next workshop is scheduled for September and its theme is cancer prevention for children and teenagers.