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One million lives saved: How our research milestones mean more moments for people with cancer

by Amy Warnock | In depth

1 September 2023

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A female researcher in the lab smiling


Thanks to advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment, more than one million deaths have been avoided in the UK since the mid-1980s.*  

But progress like this doesn’t come easily – not when you’re up against something as complex as cancer.  

There wasn’t one big research breakthrough that made the difference for everyone. The story of how one million lives were saved is almost four decades long, and our understanding of cancer has grown, moment by moment, over that time.  

We’ve seen improvements in treatments, such as better radiotherapy and the development of new drugs; enhanced screening programmes; progress in prevention, such as lower smoking rates; and research highlighting the role of certain genes in cancer.  

We’re proud to be part of that story. You’re part of it too. Our supporters make our research possible. Since cancer deaths in the UK peaked in the 1980s, our supporters have helped us fill 40 years with lifesaving moments – moments spent craning over microscopes, guiding people through trials and campaigning for change. 

Here we’re celebrating just a few of our cancer research milestones over the past 40 years. And, to show just what they mean, we’re highlighting some of the special moments they’ve made possible. 

Research means more people beating cancer, and #MoreMoments with the people we love. We want you to think of a special moment, big or small, that you never would’ve experienced if cancer had had its way that we can share on our photowall. It could be meeting a grandchild, being walked down the aisle, or one of those quieter, more personal moments between you and someone you love. 

Post your story on social, tag us and use our hashtag #MoreMoments or visit www.cancerresearchuk.org/moremoments 

1980s – Making radiotherapy more precise 

When it comes to radiotherapy, we go way back. In fact, our scientists led on some of the earliest radiotherapy research in the 1920s and 30s. 

And in the 1980s we made a big step forward in improving radiotherapy treatment by helping to develop and lead the first clinical trial for intensity modulated radiotherapy (IMRT) 

Each tumour has a unique shape, size and position in the body. This means that some parts of the tumour will be closer to healthy cells than others. IMRT produces radiation beams that vary in strength and intensity, which means that they can be carefully shaped to the tumour. Because of this, it can kill cancer cells without harming the healthy ones nearby. 

Thanks to IMRT, doctors can use radiotherapy to try and cure many more cancers. Before then, the risk of damaging vital organs near tumours meant they were often limited to smaller doses of radiation that could only relieve cancer symptoms. 

The change has been profound. In the mid-2000s, before IMRT became available at the Christie Hospital in Manchester, only 4 in 10 people treated for lung cancer there were suitable for radiotherapy with curative intent. But by the 2010s (when IMRT was fully available), almost 7 in 10 were receiving curative-intent radiotherapy.   

Now, modern radiotherapy techniques including IMRT benefit more than 130,000 people each year in the UK.  

Oliver’s story

Father-of-one Oliver, 59, was diagnosed with tonsil cancer in 2009 after spotting swollen glands under his jaw.

He had a tonsillectomy followed by chemotherapy.

Oliver wearing a yellow swimming cap and swimming in a lake
“Thanks to research, I can enjoy #MoreMoments swimming with my open water swimming group.” - Oliver

He then took part in the PARSPORT trial – a Cancer Research UK-funded clinical trial, which found that IMRT was as effective as standard radiotherapy, caused less damage to the surrounding tissue, and led to fewer side effects such as dry mouth.  

Oliver is now doing well.

“I feel fortunate to have been offered the chance to help medical research.

“There are tremendous opportunities in research to combat cancer at the moment.

“There are amazing advances in knowledge about DNA and genomes and more research is needed to make the most of this with all these trials and projects. It’s an exciting time – we need the investment and the funds now.”

 

1987 – Laying the groundwork for Herceptin, a new targeted cancer drug  

In 1984 our scientists discovered EGFR – a molecule that sits on the surface of our cells and plays an important role in cancer development. 

This was groundbreaking because it showed for the first time that our own genes, and the proteins that they code for, had the potential to cause cancer. A few years later, in 1987, that led to another important discovery: high levels of the molecule HER2 can drive breast cancer. 

This led directly to the development of a drug called Herceptin, a targeted cancer drug that precisely blocks HER2, stopping cancer cells growing and dividing.  

We now know that up to 1 in 5 breast cancers are HER2 positive. Today, Herceptin, which was approved for use in 1998, is a key part in the gold standard of care for this type of breast cancer, helping more people to survive the disease. 

Helen’s story 

Helen, 41, was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2014 after finding a lump under her armpit and treated with a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. She was also given Herceptin and tamoxifen and had surgery in February 2015.

Throughout her treatment Helen was determined to keep her life as normal as possible – including continuing to embrace her love of exercise. She even opted to cycle to hospital for chemotherapy because of her dislike of the underground.

Before Helen was diagnosed with breast cancer, she was looking at doing courses to become a personal trainer.

Helen doing starjumps outside
“I couldn’t be happier now, especially being able to help train people who have had cancer treatments too.” - Helen 

“When I was diagnosed, I had to put that on the back burner. Once I’d recovered, I decided I needed to do something for myself, so I took the plunge and signed up for a course. It was an eight-week intensive one and I completed it, passed and, within less than a month, I got a job. Now I couldn’t be happier, and I think that it was the best thing for me. It was terrifying changing my career, but it’s working out and I am now qualified to train people who have had cancer treatment too.”

1988 – Shaping tamoxifen treatment 

Tamoxifen has been called “the most important drug in the history of medical oncology”. Our funding helped doctors work out how to use it. 

Around 8 in every 10 breast cancers diagnosed in the UK are classified as ER-positive, which means that they are encouraged to grow by the hormone oestrogen, which circulates in the bloodstream. Tamoxifen turned that into their Achilles’ heel. It stops oestrogen from affecting cancer cells.  

Tamoxifen was discovered in 1966 and approved for use in the UK in 1972. But bringing drugs to market is a long and complicated process, and even after a drug is granted a licence, further ‘phase 4 clinical trials’ are needed to help to collect more information about a drug’s risks, benefits and how best to use it. 

In 1988, research we helped to fund was published that brought together and analysed all the individual clinical trials of tamoxifen, pinpointing its overall benefits for different age groups of women, and the best dosing schedules to give them. 

This landmark study helped pave the way for tamoxifen to become the powerhouse it is today. 

Nevo’s story

In 2012 Nevo, who is now 56, found a lump and was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She was treated with a lumpectomy and radiotherapy, followed by tamoxifen for five years, completing her treatment in 2017.

It wasn’t until the night before her biopsy results that Nevo told her husband.

She says, “He was so supportive. It wasn’t easy at first to talk with family and friends as they were in disbelief, however their understanding grew, and they supported me and prayed for me.”

Nevo said the diagnosis and radiotherapy left her feeling exhausted and with PTSD. “I found counselling and support groups really helped.”

Nevo dancing and singing with her choir
“Now I get to experience #MoreMoments singing and performing with my choir.” - Nevo

She added: “I am passionate about early detection, and for people of African/Caribbean communities to know that they are not alone by sharing my story.

“Thanks to the research that produced tamoxifen, I am alive to continue doing the things I love, helping people and performing with my choir!” 

1994 – Discovering a new way to treat prostate cancer  

Like ER-positive breast cancers, prostate cancers rely on a hormone – testosterone – to help them grow. In 1994, our researchers found a chemical that blocked it. Then they made it into a drug: abiraterone.  

The journey from discovery to treatment was a long one, but along the way, our understanding of prostate cancer was turned upside-down.  

Scientists didn’t know this in 1994, but advanced prostate tumours can begin to produce their own testosterone. Abiraterone can stop them doing it.  

As well as being involved in early phase clinical trials of abiraterone, more recently we funded the STAMPEDE trial, one of the largest of its kind.  

Generally, abiraterone is a treatment for people with advanced prostate cancer that has spread and stopped responding to standard hormone therapy. But STAMPEDE showed that adding abiraterone to standard therapy at the start of treatment, before the disease becomes resistant to standard hormone therapy, can help boost survival. It’s changed the way doctors treat people with prostate cancer. 

Alfred’s story

Alfred dances outside with his wife
“For me, my moment would be having more date nights – like this one – with my beautiful wife.” - Alfred

In 2012 Alfred, now 65, was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer that had already spread to his bones.

As surgery wouldn’t have been effective, he enrolled onto the arm of the Cancer Research UK-funded STAMPEDE trial which was testing the drug abiraterone. Alfred responded well to the treatment and his cancer is stable.

“If it wasn’t for abiraterone, I don’t think I’d be here today,” he says. “Cancer Research UK spends money wisely, which is why I think they deserve people’s support.”

You can read more of Alfred’s story here.

2014 – Making lung cancer a priority   

Recently we’ve seen some exciting progress in understanding the mechanisms behind lung cancer. TRACERx, the biggest lung cancer study of its kind, has played a big part in that. 

Over the last few years, TRACERx has been collecting comprehensive genomic and clinical data from people with non-small cell lung cancer, which researchers hope to use to aid the design of new, targeted lung cancer treatments. 

Since then, TRACERx has helped to provide evidence for how air pollution can cause lung cancer; unravelled the secrets of how lung cancer can evolve, spread and resist treatment; and demonstrated how blood tests can be used to track lung cancer. 

And we’re not done yet. In 2022 we launched TRACERx EVO, which hopes to bring a deeper biological understanding of lung cancer evolution, prevention, diagnosis and treatment to the clinic. 

Kelly’s story

Kelly, 47, was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2015.

“It was a shock. I was fit and healthy. I didn’t smoke or drink, or have a cough, or any of the other typical symptoms.”

Kelly feeds a horse
“I am grateful for every moment I can spend horse riding now” - Kelly

Kelly had surgery to remove the tumour followed by chemotherapy. She’s since taken part in the Cancer Research UK-funded TRACERx lung study.

“I was very happy to take part in the TRACERx study to help find new and better treatments for the future.

“As part of the trial they took regular blood samples for five years. I was given the all clear at that time too.

“Before my diagnosis, I was running six days a week. I was signed up to the Manchester Marathon in 2016, but couldn’t take part – however, fortunately, eight weeks after my treatment finished, I was able to take part in a 10k Race for Life and I did the London Marathon for CRUK in 2023 too!” 

2020 – Intercepting oesophageal cancer with a ‘sponge on a string’ 

When it comes to cancer, early detection is key. And recently our researchers have helped make huge strides in early detection for oesophageal cancer.  

Some people develop a condition called Barrett’s oesophagus before cancer. While most people who have Barrett’s oesophagus won’t develop cancer, it presents an opportunity for doctors to spot a problem early and intervene before cancer develops. 

That’s where the capsule sponge comes in. It’s a simple, quick and affordable test for Barrett’s oesophagus developed by our researchers, and it can be done in a GP surgery. 

The capsule sponge is made by compressing a sponge that is attached to a string, into a small capsule. It’s easy for people to swallow, and when it enters the stomach, the capsule dissolves and releases the sponge. Within 10 minutes the sponge can be pulled back up collecting a sample of the cells lining the oesophagus.  

Cytosponge

It’s then sent off for analysis in the lab, where a test called TFF3, also developed by our researchers, looks for signs of Barrett’s oesophagus. 

Our researchers have shown, through the BEST3 trial, that the capsule sponge can identify 10 times more people with Barrett’s oesophagus than current GP care. 

The capsule sponge has now entered the next phase of trials, which are looking at the practicalities of the test, and how people respond to it. 

Liz’s story

Liz holds a large birthday cake while being hugged by a young woman
“#MoreMoments to me means more birthdays – this was my 75th which I might not have seen if I hadn’t taken part in the capsule sponge trial which Cancer Research UK funded.” - Liz

In 2018, Liz took part in a Cancer Research UK-funded clinical trial designed to test the capsule sponge.

Liz, who is now 75, had a history of indigestion and acid reflux, so her GP invited her to take part. The samples revealed that not only did Liz have Barrett’s, she also had cancer. Liz had two endoscopy procedures to remove the cancerous tissue and follow-up treatment to remove traces of Barrett’s.

“It’s a chain of events that makes me feel so very lucky,” she says. “I believe this trial saved my life.”

“I shall always be immensely grateful for Cancer Research UK’s involvement in funding research into the development of the capsule sponge. Without the BEST3 trial, my cancer would not have been found at such an early stage and the course of my life could have been very different.”

Creating more moments 

These milestones represent just some of the progress that has been made over the past 40 years. 

It’s through the work of countless charities, researchers, clinicians and policymakers that we’re making a real difference to people affected by cancer.  

As we celebrate the moments that these milestones have made possible, we’re also looking towards the future. Cancer remains the number one cause of death in the UK, and we still have a long way to go.  

But we’re hopeful that over the next 40 years, and with the continued generosity of our supporters, the many wins from cancer research will create major boosts to cancer survival.  

Together, we are beating cancer. 

 


 

*The mid-1980s is when cancer mortality rates started falling. If they’d remained at their peak levels, there would have been more than a million additional deaths between then and now. 

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    Comments

  • Tracey Barnett
    20 October 2023

    Fantastic news really wasn’t aware of all the progress made. Especially happy with the news of more research into lung cancer after my dad passed away from this horrible disease in 2016.

  • Kathryn Keefe
    19 October 2023

    Excellent email. As a survivor of Hodgkins Lymphoma myself I know how important your work is

  • Mr K.A.Sleight
    18 October 2023

    What a wonderful e.mail.It has made me pleased that I have been able to donate to Cancer. Research UK every month for many years and to see the positive results that you have talked about

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    Comments

  • Tracey Barnett
    20 October 2023

    Fantastic news really wasn’t aware of all the progress made. Especially happy with the news of more research into lung cancer after my dad passed away from this horrible disease in 2016.

  • Kathryn Keefe
    19 October 2023

    Excellent email. As a survivor of Hodgkins Lymphoma myself I know how important your work is

  • Mr K.A.Sleight
    18 October 2023

    What a wonderful e.mail.It has made me pleased that I have been able to donate to Cancer. Research UK every month for many years and to see the positive results that you have talked about

Tell us what you think

Leave a Reply

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Read our comment policy.