Our second update from the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Cancer Conference in Liverpool, where we share our highlights of day one.
The conference brings together the cancer research community, from scientists and doctors to patient advocates and charities, and everyone else in between, and showcases the very latest developments across all areas of cancer research.
We were excited to hear about the most recent discoveries in breast cancer research and the progress being made into preventing breast cancer, ensuring it’s detected early and accurately and new, more effective ways to treat the disease.
Reconstructive surgery –what’s best for the breast?
An early Monday morning session into breast reconstruction discussed surgical techniques for improving cosmetic outcomes and the research being carried out to confirm that these methods are safe for patients.
Surgeon Dr Isabel Rubio explained how sparing the nipple during a mastectomy is likely to improve the physical appearance of the breast following surgery but care needs to be taken to ensure this doesn’t compromise the ability to remove all the tumour or put the patient at unnecessary risk of infection.
We then heard from Consultant Onco-plastic Surgeon Ms Siobhan Laws that replacing breast tissue with the patient’s own fat cells may be a viable alternative to silicone implants. More research is needed to determine whether this method is safe for patients, as fat cells are able to interact with their local environment, and how this procedure can be optimised to give patients the best, and safest, results.
The global challenge of treating breast cancer
A thought-provoking talk from Professor Cheng-Har Yip discussed the challenges that low and middle income countries (LMIC) face in treating breast cancer, where cases of the disease are on the rise due to increasingly ‘westernised’ lifestyles.
One of the main issues that healthcare providers in LMIC face is that women will often only seek medical help when their cancer is advanced. Professor Yip discussed the wide range of socioeconomic and cultural factors responsible for this; many are unable to afford treatment and travel costs to hospital, fear social stigma and rely on alternative therapies. As a result, their chances of successful treatment are greatly reduced.
The lack of, or disparity in, resources for screening, diagnostics and treatment presents a further challenge and one which Professor Yip is determined to tackle through her involvement in the Breast Health Global Initiative. The group aims to tackle inequality by offering standardised treatment guidelines aimed at countries in different stages of development. Work like this and greater awareness of inequalities in breast cancer treatment globally will be crucial in bringing survival rates in developing countries up to those in the developed world - something that could save around 100,000 lives a year worldwide.
All in this together - cancer prevention at the population level
As we know from research like the Breast Cancer Now Generations Study, lifestyle factors, such as alcohol consumption and obesity, have a real impact on a woman’s risk of developing breast cancer. We heard how research into these risk factors is being translated into policies to prevent cancer at the population level.
Professor Tim Stockwell discussed how the pricing of alcohol has a powerful impact on consumption, with multiple studies showing that price hikes correlate with a reduction in alcohol use and fewer alcohol related deaths. With the recent announcement that minimum pricing for alcohol is to be introduced in Scotland, we are interested to see the effect this has on consumption and people’s health.
As obesity levels continue to rise dramatically throughout the UK, Professor Susan Jebb highlighted the need to provide support and motivation to overweight individuals as well as making changes at a population level to make weight control easier. She emphasized the key role that policy makers can play in reducing obesity levels; a recent study has estimated that a 20% increase in the tax on sugary drinks could prevent a staggering 3.7 million people from becoming obese by 2025. This would in turn have a knock-on effect of reducing people’s risk of developing cancer.
Potential new use for PARP inhibitors
Scientists have been studying whether viruses can be used as an alternative way of treating cancer – an exciting area of research our scientists at Queen Mary University of London are exploring with the aim of finding more effective treatments for triple negative breast cancer.
We heard from Professor Kevin Harrington, based at the Royal Marsden Hospital, who discussed how PARP inhibitor drugs may be able to enhance the effect of a virus known as RT3D, used to treat melanoma.
It’s all in the blood
Monday afternoon saw a packed out room for a session hosted by Dr Nick Turner, who leads the Molecular Oncology team at the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre.
Everyone was gathered to hear the latest on how we can track cancer’s behaviour by looking at signals in the blood (or even urine), known as ‘liquid biopsies’. All the speakers were incredibly positive about the potential of liquid biopsies to get us one step ahead of cancer at every stage; helping us find tumours before they’re visible to scans, pinpointing the molecules driving each person’s cancer to grow so we can then use the right drugs, and detecting the earliest signs that cancer might be developing drug resistance. Speaker Professor Caroline Dive predicted we might see liquid biopsies being used for these purposes in the next few years.
Could a diabetes drug be used to treat breast cancer?
There are over 100 ongoing trials testing whether a drug called metformin, used to treat diabetes, could also treat cancer, however it’s not been clear why the drug might have an anti-cancer effect. Dr Simon Lord from the University of Oxford presented results from a study which treated breast cancer patients with metformin for a short period before their surgery. They found that the drug had a direct effect on breast tumours - hampering their ability to use the sugar they need to fuel their growth - and giving more weight to the idea that this cheap drug could benefit breast cancer patients too - another example of repurposing old drugs for new uses.
“Never forget who you’re treating and why you’re doing it”
We rounded off the day celebrating the career of Professor Stan Kaye, who received the Lifetime Achievement in Cancer Research Award. Prof Kaye has spent 40 years working in drug development, with a particular focus on ovarian cancer. Interspersing the highlights of his career with sage advice, he discussed the use of PARP inhibitor drugs in BRCA-positive ovarian cancer and how more work is needed to understand the precise role of these drugs in other cancers such as breast cancer.
To find out more about the latest news from the world of cancer research then look out for the next instalment of our highlights blog - coming soon! You can also follow the latest from the conference on Twitter using the hashtag #NCRI2016.