Skip to main content

Together we are beating cancer

Donate now
  • Health & Medicine

An intelligent knife and kinder treatments – some of our pioneering new clinical trials

by Emma Smith | Analysis

9 December 2016

0 comments 0 comments

An image of a woman undergoing radiotherapy treatment.

One of our priorities is turning bright ideas in the lab into life-saving new treatments, and we want the latest and most promising treatments to be made available to people with cancer as quickly as possible.

But experimental treatments need to be thoroughly tested to make sure they are safe, check whether there are any side effects, and to determine if they are better than the gold standard of care treatments available to patients. And the way doctors find answers to these questions is through clinical trials.

Clinical trials are a vital part of cancer research and we are committed to funding trials to determine the effectiveness of new treatments. Earlier this year, we received 46 applications for funding from researchers leading clinical trials.

In May our committee of clinical research experts were joined by someone who has directly been affected by cancer to decide which of these promising ideas for clinical trials to fund. Here’s a selection of some of the successful projects.

Using an intelligent knife to tell cancer cells apart from healthy cells

Professor Zoltan Takats, Imperial College London: amount for year one, around £44,000 

Around 20% of patients that have breast cancer surgery need another operation because some of the cancer cells get left behind.  Professor Takats and his team are testing whether an ‘intelligent knife’ (‘iKnife’) can tell the difference between normal and cancer cells during breast cancer surgery to help surgeons remove all traces of the tumour.

Unlike a normal surgical knife, the iKnife gets hot and gives off small amounts of smoke during an operation. A special machine then analyses the smoke and can tell the surgeon whether the tissue is cancerous or not.

A cancer-detecting knife may sound futuristic but this innovative technique could help make surgery more precise and mean women can avoid unnecessary extra surgery.

Making radiotherapy for prostate cancer more effective

Dr Isabel Syndikus, Clatterbridge Cancer Centre, and Professor Emma Hall: amount for year one, around £140,000

More than 47,000 men are diagnosed with prostate cancer every year in the UK, and it’s the most common form of cancer in men.


Dr Isabel Syndikus

If the cancer is contained in the prostate but has a high risk of spreading, men have surgery to remove all or part of the prostate or have radiotherapy combined with hormone therapy.

Radiotherapy is effective, but it doesn’t work for all men – some experience their cancer coming back. Dr Syndikus and Professor Hall want to find out if they can improve radiotherapy without increasing the side effects.

In this clinical trial they are testing different ways to use radiotherapy, comparing Intensity Modulated Radiotherapy (IMRT), dose painting and internal radiotherapy. They also want to find out if giving extra radiotherapy to nearby lymph nodes or adding a boost of radiotherapy directly to the prostate helps stop cancer coming back after treatment.

This clinical trial could change the way men with prostate cancer are treated and reduce the number of men who lose their lives to the disease.

Reducing side effects for thyroid cancer patients

Dr Ujjal Mallick, University College London: amount for year one, around £63,000

The main treatments for people with thyroid cancer are surgery and radiotherapy. Patients are sometimes given radioactive iodine following surgery to reduce the risk of thyroid cancer coming back.

But there might be a group of people with thyroid cancer who have a low risk of their cancer returning and who don’t benefit from taking radioactive iodine. Dr Mallick is leading a clinical trial to find out if some patients can safely avoid this treatment.

This project could make treatment for patients with thyroid cancer kinder, reducing their time in hospital and lessening potential side effects.

Slowing down drug-resistant lung cancer

Dr Fiona McDonald and Professor Judith Bliss, The Institute of Cancer Research: amount for year one, around £141,000

People with lung cancers harbouring certain faulty genes are treated with targeted therapies called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs). Although these drugs slow down cancer’s growth for many patients, sadly in nearly all cases lung cancer becomes resistant and starts growing again.


Dr Fiona McDonald

Dr McDonald and Professor Bliss are testing radiotherapy as a treatment for patients whose lung cancer has started growing again in a limited number of other organs. They are finding out if giving a high dose of radiotherapy (stereotactic ablative radiotherapy (SABR)) to the tumours can slow down further spread.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in the UK and is one of our top priorities. Clinical trials like this might improve the outlook for lung cancer patients, giving people more time with friends and loved ones.

Clinical trials are vital if we are to make new treatments available to patients and accelerate progress against the disease. They can benefit patients right now by giving them access to new treatments, and will help more people cancer survive in the future.

If you’d like to hear more about clinical trials from a doctor and a patient who’s taken part in several trials, you can watch our recent Google Hangout.

Emma & Harry