Photo credit: Imperial Science Imagery

It’s been another busy year in cancer research and with so much remarkable work going on it made picking our research highlights for 2017 a tough task.

At Cancer Research UK patients are at the heart of what we do, so it made sense to ask one of the patients involved with our work to help us out.

We sifted through our press releases and blog posts, as well as research headlines from elsewhere, to create the ultimate shortlist. We then set Peter Breaden, a retired biomedical scientist, pancreatic cancer survivor and Media Volunteer, the challenge of selecting his most significant cancer research stories of the year.

Peter with his wife Alwena, shortly after he finished treatment.

“My career as a biomedical scientist helped me understand the concepts behind these stories but my choices were influenced by my personal experience of having pancreatic cancer,” says Peter.

Thanks to your incredible support we’ve made progress both in the lab and the clinic. From investigating cancer cells in a dish to giving new drugs to patients, here’s what Peter picked as his research highlights of 2017… plus a couple of bonus ones from us.

Hard-to-treat cancers

Treatment for many cancers has improved in recent decades, with survival following suit. But some remain notoriously hard to tackle. Peter’s first pick is tied to one of these cancers. And it’s a subject very close to his heart. It’s the Cancer Research UK-funded ESPAC4 trial, which Peter took part in when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2010.

The results of the trial, published this year, were hailed as one of the biggest breakthroughs in improving treatment for people with pancreatic cancer.

“This in my view represents a milestone in the treatment of pancreatic cancer,” says Peter. “It almost doubled the number of patients surviving to 5 years and I was one of the lucky ones.”

After surgery, Peter and around half of the patients on the trial received two chemotherapy drugs, gemcitabine and capecitabine. 29 out of 100 patients given the combination were alive after 5 years compared to only 16 out of 100 who took gemcitabine alone.

“Research using drugs that are already available just in new combinations really appeals to me,” says Peter. “It means they’re more likely to reach patients like me quicker.”

And this wasn’t the only research that made progress in tackling hard-to-treat cancers:

  • The TRACERx study, our biggest single investment in lung cancer, released its first results. Our researchers homed in on clues around how the disease returns after treatment, using the info to develop a potential blood test. Read about the genetic details in this post, plus the experimental blood test that could help doctors predict potential relapse sooner.
  • US scientists shrunk an aggressive type of brain tumour, called glioblastoma, in mice using the Zika virus. They also showed that the virus kills brain tumour stem cells in the lab. These are the cells that make the disease so tricky to treat. We’re funding research in this area too. Watch our video to see how the Zika virus might be turned in to a way to treat brain tumours.

  • Our glioblastoma researchers also found that the ovarian cancer drug olaparib (Lynparza) could reach the brain. The drug penetrates not only the core of the tumour but the cancer cells around it too. And it’s these cancer cells that can’t be removed by surgery. When he read about this study Peter thought: “finally there’s a chink of light there. Even if it is only going to help people for a few months, that’s still a good thing.”
  • Away from our labs, a trial carried out in Birmingham showed that cutting time from diagnosis to surgery from two months to two weeks led to more pancreatic cancer surgeries being carried out successfully. “This story really resonated with me because I was lucky to get treatment quickly,” says Peter. “I remember the doctor rushing in and telling me to not eat breakfast as there had been a cancellation and I was off to surgery that morning.”

In the lab

Practice-changing cancer research starts somewhere, and that’s often in the lab. Peter’s choice for this category is a study by Dr Oliver Maddocks, one of our scientists working on how cancer cells make and process energy.

Maddocks and his team looked at whether cutting off a tumour’s fuel supply could stop it growing. Removing two molecular building blocks from the diets of mice with two types of cancer slowed the development of the disease. It’s early days, but if the same effects are seen in people it could lead to hospital-controlled diets for patients to make treatments more effective.

“Supporting existing treatments with new ideas seems a sensible approach,” says Peter. “I guess my biomedical background also drew me to this study as it always amazes me how many complex molecules can be found in our blood.”

Here are the other 2017 lab success stories:

  • It’s not just biologists that move cancer research forward. We visited our physicists in Cambridge to see how they are using light and sound to capture specialised pictures of prostate cancer in mice. The technique, called optoacoustics, points out the most aggressive tumour cells in real time. We also blogged about this one.

  • Highlighting that lab work doesn’t always involve cells in a dish, our researchers from Queen Mary University London used statistics to predict how cervical screening may need to change thanks to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine. They worked out that women who’ve had the HPV vaccine may need just 3 cervical screens in their lifetime instead of the standard 12. This new info could free up already-stretched NHS resources. We blogged about what this means.

In the clinic

Clinical trials are essential to make sure cancer treatments are safe and effective. Peter thought that the results from our STAMPEDE trial, presented this year at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) Annual Meeting, was the clinical highlight of 2017.

“The survival and quality of life figures coming from this trial made me pick this story,” he says. “I don’t think there’s much point in prolonging life unless it can be enjoyed, so that both factors were significantly improved was fantastic.”

The STAMPEDE trial is comparing a range of different treatment combinations for men with prostate cancer that has spread outside of the prostate.

The results out this year showed that combining abiraterone (Zytiga) and a drug called prednisolone with standard therapy in men before their disease became resistant to hormone therapy boosts survival.

Here are the other standout clinical achievements in 2017:

  • More from ASCO: research found that a single dose of radiotherapy is enough to relieve spinal cord compression, a debilitating complication of advanced cancer.
  • Scientists developed a test that might be able to predict bladder cancer’s return earlier and more accurately than current methods. If larger trials are successful, this new urine test could help doctors start patients’ treatment sooner before symptoms appear.

Research from elsewhere

It’s not only Cancer Research UK-funded scientists that are working hard to beat cancer. In this category of our shortlist, Peter felt that work from the World Cancer Research Fund marked a very important step in understanding diet and bowel cancer.

“I liked the way the researchers made suggestions from their results and explained which types of foods contained wholegrains. Sometimes it’s hard to make healthy choices if you don’t have all the right information but the outcome of this study was clear,” he says.

We blogged about the research showing that eating wholegrains reduces the risk of developing bowel cancer.

“I’m always so impressed with young people today,” adds Peter. “They seem to take their health more seriously than we used to do, I’m sure research like this has an influence. It’s great that the information is now out there – I’m going to keep eating my shredded wheat for breakfast!”

Peter says research into cancer prevention is crucial because “reducing the incidence of cancer will mean more resources towards fighting cancers that can’t be prevented.”

Read the full report here.

Here are the other highlights from elsewhere that made our shortlist:

  • French researchers suggested that bacteria in cancer patients’ bowels may influence how well immunotherapy drugs work. And a US lab found that gut bacteria can hitch a ride with spreading bowel cancer cells, and may even help them settle in other parts of the body.
  • A late-stage trial found a drug that stops some advanced ovarian cancers getting worse. The results suggested that rucaparib (Rubraca) boosted the amount of time before a patient’s disease returned, irrespective of tumour genetics.
  • US scientists developed a handheld device called a MassSpec pen that could help surgeons spot tumour tissue during surgery and improve accuracy.
  • And finally, a medical milestone was reached: The FDA in the US approved a first-of-its-kind engineered immune cell treatment – called CAR T cell therapy– for a small number of children and young adults with a particular type of leukaemia.

Thank you for all your support and generous donations in 2017, you make this research happen. We wish you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.



Feeling inspired by Peter’s story? If you’ve been affected by cancer there are lots of ways you can use your experience to help Cancer Research UK – find out more on our website.