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News digest – cancer ‘vaccine factories’, cataloguing DNA weaknesses, NHS drug decisions and cancer sniffing canines

by Katie Roberts | Analysis

13 April 2019

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DNA sequence

Scientists use CRISPR to catalogue cancer’s weaknesses

BBC News covered some fascinating new findings from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge, where scientists are building a list of the most promising potential cancer drug targets. The team are using the DNA-editing tool CRISPR to switch off every gene, one-by-one, in over 300 different types of lab-grown cancer cells. So far they’ve ranked 600 promising drug targets, which could help to prioritise drug development in the future. Our news report has a breakdown of the research.

A fresh batch of NHS drug decisions

  • Breast cancer: a new drug combo won’t be made available for patients with a certain type of advanced breast on the NHS in England. The combination of ribociclib (Kisqali) and fulvestrant (Faslodex) could give patients more time before their disease gets worse, but the combo hasn’t been compared to patients’ current treatment, making it hard to judge if it’s a cost-effective option. Find out more in our news report.
  • Lung cancer: two targeted drugs got an initial ‘no’ for some NHS patients with non small cell lung cancer in England. The decision came down to uncertainties over the long-term benefits and a lack of data comparing the drugs to the current standard of care. Our news report has the details.
  • Liver cancer: a targeted cancer drug has been approved for some patients with advanced liver cancer that cannot be removed surgically on the NHS in Scotland, reports the BBC. It was one of three cancer drug decisions for NHS Scotland this week, with the other two decisions extending access to existing treatments to children with certain types of leukaemia. More on these decisions on the Scottish Medicines Consortium website.

Immune-boosting combo could help create cancer ‘vaccine factories’

Scientists are testing new, experimental treatment combinations to help teach the immune system to attack cancer cells. The Express picked up the latest results from the US, which we also covered, showing that injecting immune cell stimulants directly into a tumour could help the immune system spot and kill cancer cells in mice. It’s an exciting new immunotherapy approach, but it’s a long way from being an effective treatment for people with cancer.

Boys in Northern Ireland will be offered HPV vaccine

Important news this week as it was announced that boys aged 12-13 in Northern Ireland will be offered the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine from September this year. This brings Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the UK, where the roll-out of the vaccine programme was announced in 2018. The vaccine protects against HPV infection, which can increase the risk of 7 types of cancer, including mouth and throat cancer, as our blog post explains.

Northern Ireland also announced it would introduce a more effective bowel cancer screening test in 2020. BBC News has more.

Space scientists tasked with improving cancer imaging

In a week that was dominated by the first stunning photos of a black hole, the UK Space Agency and NHS England announced that scientists would be turning star gazing technology on cancer cells. They’ve tasked experts with developing a portable 3D x-ray machine, with the hope that a more complete picture of growing tumours could aid early diagnosis. Watch this space.

1 in 3 US cancer patients report using complementary and alternative medicines

The Independent covered research into the self-reported use of complementary and alternative medicines among US cancer patients, with a third saying they used one of these remedies. And of those that had tried alternative medicines, 1 in 3 hadn’t told their doctor. While the study was based across the pond, experts say it’s not just a US phenomenon. We’ve written about complementary and alternative medicines, and their potential impact in cancer survival, before.

Chilli compound slows cancer spread in lab tests

Scientists in the US are investigating the potential benefits of a highly purified version of the chilli compound capsaicin in slowing cancer spread. They found that in lab tests, the molecule, which gives chillies their heat, could block some of the steps cancer cells take before spreading, as the Evening Standard explains. It’s not the first time this fiery compound has been linked to cancer, but most research has looked at if it can promote or prevent cancer developing. The jury’s still out.

Making genetic studies more representative

An interesting article in the journal Nature this week covered the effort to make DNA data used in research more diverse. Most large genetic studies so far have mainly included people of European descent, but the tide is starting to turn, as Nature reporter Heidi Ledford explains.

And finally

A trio of beagles made headlines this week, as the dogs were trained to ‘sniff out cancer’ with remarkable accuracy, according to a press release. Our canine companions have smell receptors 10,000 times more accurate than ours, which has led to some interest in their ability to detect cancer and other conditions by using their keen sense of smell to detect smelly molecules given off by faulty cells. In lab tests, the dogs were trained to pick out samples from patients with lung cancer that had spread to other parts of the body, which they did 96.7% of the time. It’s unlikely that research like this will result in a dog in every GP practice, but the ideas behind the research are already being exploited to develop a reliable and reproducible test to detect cancer early. You can read more about one example of this in our blog post about a breath test clinical trial.