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News digest – obesity in primary schools, the Crick, artificial intelligence and… Tasmanian devils?

by Justine Alford | Analysis

3 September 2016

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Tasmanian devil sits on grass
Tasmanian Devil.
  • Every year more than 57,000 children who started primary school in England at a healthy weight end up obese or overweight by the time they leave. We know that obese children are around five times more likely to grow into obese adults, and that carrying too much weight increases a person’s risk of cancer and other diseases. To highlight these new statistics and the obesity epidemic, we transformed a shop front into an XL school uniform shop, as reported by the Express, the Huffington Post and The shopfront showed how larger school uniforms are the new norm, and we’re urging the public to contact their MPs asking the Government to take stronger action on childhood obesity by introducing restrictions on junk food TV advertising before 9pm.
  • This week Cancer Research UK scientists, among many others, moved into the £650 million Francis Crick Institute. Joining forces with scientists from five other partner organisations, these researchers will be working in Europe’s biggest biomedical laboratory to tackle some of the major health challenges we face today.

    Crick 200

    The Francis Crick Institute.

  • There was widespread – and in some cases alarming (ExpressTelegraph) – coverage of data released by Public Health England monitoring what happens to patients with lung and breast cancer who have been treated with drugs that can affect the whole body, including chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapies. For the first time this data showed what proportion of these patients died within 30 days of receiving these types of treatment – but crucially it’s not possible to say what caused these deaths. It’s vital these data are collected and analysed to spot areas where the health service can make improvements allowing patients to have open discussions with their doctors about the benefits and potential hams of treatment. You can read our take on it on our blog.
  • We reported on an interesting study which found that retinoic acid, a molecule made from vitamin A, could help protect against bowel cancers caused by damage to the gut. Retinoic acid reduces gut inflammation and low levels of this molecule could play a role in the development of the disease in some people. More research is needed, but the study could hint at a possible way to treat and perhaps prevent certain cases of bowel cancer.

Number of the week


The number of scientists that will be working in the Crick.

  • The world’s first vaccine to prevent cancer had its 10 year anniversary this week, as the BBC and many others reported. The HPV vaccine prevents cervical cancer (and some other types) by protecting people from the human papilloma virus, which can trigger the disease. The vaccine is now being used in 130 countries and has helped to halve cervical cancer rates since its introduction.
  • The Guardian wrote about NICE’s approval of a radioactive drug for men with prostate cancer that has spread to the bone. The treatment was already available for men with the disease whose cancer hadn’t responded to chemotherapy, but this change means that men who are too unwell to have chemotherapy can also get the treatment.
  • A new artificial intelligence project could improve radiotherapy for patients with head and neck cancers. The collaboration between Google’s DeepMind division and University College London Hospital hopes to speed up planning of the therapy, but we still need to find ways to make treatment more precise to reduce side effects.
  • The Daily Mail reported how researchers at the Institute of Cancer Research and the Royal Marsden in London have developed a ‘liquid biopsy’ test to identify women with breast cancer who are less likely to respond to certain hormonal treatments, but might benefit from newer, experimental drugs. Tests like this can help ensure the right treatment is given to the right patient at the right time, and in turn help more people survive the disease. We’ve written before about liquid biopsies and the potential that this new technology holds in diagnosing and treating cancer.

And finally…

  • It seemed that the fate of Tasmanian devils was sealed, but these carnivorous marsupials are fighting back against a deadly cancer that was set to wipe them out. One of only three known contagious cancers (none of which affect humans), devil facial tumour disease has already claimed 80% of the entire population. But a new study has found that they are now evolving to resist the disease, offering hope that they may dodge the extinction bullet.