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News digest – early diagnosis, waiting times breach, a sad loss and… sweet-talking on obesity?

by Chris Woodhall | Analysis

15 August 2015

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What's been hitting the headlines this week?
  • We released new figures showing that – for eight common cancers – when the disease is diagnosed at an early stage, average survival is three times higher. This was reported in the GuardianDaily Mail, Express and the Mirror and  gives another clear reason why efforts to diagnose cancers at an earlier stage are so important. We blogged about four ways to improve things.
  • New figures from Scotland show that cancer survival has risen by nearly 70 per cent in the past 30 years, reported in the Scotsman and the Glasgow Evening Times.
  • We heard sad news this week, as we learnt of the death of a giant of cancer research – Professor Chris Marshall. We supported Chris for decades and, as well as, crucial discoveries of his own, he’s helped develop and train some of the world’s finest cancer researchers. The Institute of Cancer Research paid fulsome tribute; you can read about Chris’s landmark research here.
  • From Lassie’s heroic feats to Gromit’s engineering nous, dogs have often been portrayed as having remarkable abilities. But now an NHS hospital in Milton Keynes has given the go-ahead to trial the use of dogs to detect prostate cancer as reported in the Guardian, BBC, Sky News, Telegraph and Independent. Identifying the molecules that the dogs are sniffing could lead to more accurate (and practical) lab tests to diagnose cancer (although we’ve blogged before about why we remain unconvinced that canine cancer screening would be practical in the clinic on a wider scale).
  • NHS England figures demonstrate that demand for hospital services across England is soaring in what was acknowledged as a “long-term trend” and reported on by the BBC, Daily Mail the Mirror.
  • A new study explored how religious or spiritual beliefs affected the well-being of cancer patients, drawing some mixed coverage across the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Huffington Post. While some patients found positives in the comfort offered by spirituality, reducing stress and anxiety, the idea of being ‘punished’ was also brought to the fore, with associated negative connotations.
  • A briefing from The Royal Society of Public Health called for, among other things, electronic cigarettes to be made available at every outlet where tobacco products are sold, reported the BBCSky News , Independent and the Evening Standard.
  • And we published a blog post exploring how our research is aiming to answer the burning questions surrounding electronic cigarettes.
  • Researchers in the US believe they have found a ‘doorway’ in blood vessels that helps breast cancer cells spread through the body.
  • Staying across the pond, the Guardian reported that the US government has accused an online Canadian Pharmacy of selling US$78 million of ‘counterfeit’ cancer drugs.
  • In a fascinating finding, US scientists have uncovered how infection with a malaria-causing parasite can increase the chances of immune cells developing into cancer.

Number of the week:


The percentage of cancer patients starting treatment within 62 days of being referred by GPs, missing the 85 per cent target.

  • Measuring levels of a particular protein inside bowel tumour samples could help predict how well patients will do. But, perhaps even more usefully, it also reveals more about how the disease develops and grows, and suggests ways to develop new treatments. We covered the discovery, also by US researchers, on our news feed.
  • ‘Chemical kills cancer with stress’ was how The Times (subscription) reported a “counterintuitive” method for attacking tumours. The study flipped the existing idea of how to find new cancer treatments upside-down, by proposing that faulty molecules in tumours be over-stimulated in order to stress the cancer cells so much that they die. We think it’s a neat idea, but there’s still a long way to go to see if the idea can be developed into safe, effective treatments.
  • A team or our researchers at the University of Sheffield believes that a drug could be used to combat the problem of patients’ immune systems reducing the effect of chemotherapy treatments, as reported in the Daily Mail (here’s our press release). This is early research, but sheds new light on the role of the immune system in causing tumours to grow again and, importantly, identifies a potential way to prevent this happening.
  • The Express reported a new study from the US, in which researchers have developed a technique to detect secondary breast cancer early, with hopes that the findings can be applied to other cancers. It’s very early days, but certainly promising.
  • Preventative surgery has become the unlikely topic of a show at the Edinburgh Festival, as its creator gives a deeply personal account of her decision to have a double mastectomy in the Guardian.
  • The story of Bob Cole, a terminal cancer patient and campaigner for assisted suicide, brought into focus the debate surrounding assisted dying – for which there are no easy answers. There was extensive coverage of Bob’s decision to travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end his life reported on the BBC, Mirror, Guardian, Telegraph and the Daily Mail. In the latest in a series of pieces, we discussed some of the issues of end of life care on our blog.
  • A new study confirming a previous systematic review – that patients who had undergone an organ transplant were at higher risk of skin cancer – caught our eye in the Telegraph. While several possible interpretations were offered, the practical message to take care in the sun is good advice for everyone – not just people who’ve had transplants. We wrote about avoiding sunburn at the start of the summer. Because – you never know – the sun may appear again this summer.
  • Highlighting the importance of research into rarer types of cancer The Guardian covered the inspiring story of John Underwood who, with his partner Ella, is giving an inspiringly honest documentary of a cancer patient’s experience. John’s story prompted the The Telegraph to look at the available help for patients with rare cancer. You can read about our research on rare cancers here.
  • Fred Sanger invented DNA sequencing – something that’s transforming our understanding of human disease, including cancer. It would have been his 97th birthday this week, as the MRC blog noted.

And finally…

  • Sugar coating the truth? A new report from the Global Energy Balance Network has downplayed the role of diet in tackling obesity. The report has courted controversy following the revelation that its authors receive funding from a global producer of sugary beverages as reported in The Guardian Washington Post and New York Times. One in 20 UK cancers is linked to weight gain – which can be the result of a high sugar diet, as we’ve explored in previous articles.