PUBLISHED ON: 17 November 2020

Whilst this year’s NCRI Cancer Conference couldn’t take place, the Virtual Showcase saw some of the country’s brightest researchers, clinicians and patient advocates come together to discuss the most topical research and issues surrounding cancer treatment. We attended to get the latest updates.

Close up of a microscope

Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on cancer patients, healthcare professionals and research was greatly discussed at the event. There was a drive to learn from current experience and ensure that people with cancer aren’t forgotten throughout the pandemic.

Charlotte Ide, from Cancer Research UK, presented findings on the impact of COVID-19 on cancer patients in the UK. The pandemic has affected many aspects of cancer care, from screening and diagnosis to treatments. Two in three cancer patients reported their care had changed. They were also asked what the government should do now and after the pandemic. Cancer patients wanted to see a focus on allowing testing and treatment to continue safely, including safe environments for cancer appointments, regular testing for NHS staff and ensuring that NHS staff have access to the correct amount of PPE.

Cancer patients’ and carers’ priorities in terms of COVID-19 research were also explored. Dr Christian Mitchell, from the University of Birmingham, presented survey results. With 216 responses, the top three research priorities emerged.

Almost 65% of respondents thought the effect of COVID-19 on people with cancer should be researched; 60% though the development of a vaccine should be a priority, and around 45% wanted to see more research that would help us understand personal risk of COVID-19 based on the type of cancer treatment they are receiving.

Dr Susana Banerjee, from the Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust, presented her findings on the wellbeing of NHS workers during the pandemic. Results showed that 34% of NHS cancer workers had reported burnout. It highlights the need to ensure NHS staff are properly supported to deliver the best cancer care.

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected healthcare globally. Dr Rajiv Dave, from Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust, presented his research on how treatments for people newly diagnosed with breast cancer changed due to the pandemic. Of the 3,776 UK patients in the study, 59% had changes to their treatment. Researchers concluded that these changes had all been guided by evidence and were unlikely to have a negative impact on patients. But there is still concern about breast cancer diagnosis during the pandemic, which needs to be addressed.

Dr Rohan Shotton, based at the Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, has been developing a system to help clinicians select the most suitable treatment for cancer patients with COVID-19. Some of them may need to be admitted to hospital, but others can successfully overcome the virus at home. Researchers hope to develop this system into a support tool for clinicians to help prioritise medical care for those who need it the most.

It’s encouraging to see all this research aiming to ensure that people with cancer get the support and care that they need during the pandemic and beyond.

The latest in immunotherapy

Immunotherapy has been a big focus in cancer research in recent years. Researchers filled us in on the newest findings that could improve treatment.

Dr Milana Bergamino Sirven, from the Institute of Cancer Research, talked about finding ways to predict breast cancer’s resistance to aromatase inhibitors, a group of drugs used to treat breast cancer in women after the menopause. The team analysed a protein called Ki67, which can reflect how actively a tumour is growing. They found that tumours with high amounts of this protein after two weeks of treatment with aromatase inhibitors led to poorer outcomes. Researchers also found that 29 genes associated with the immune system were particularly active in this group of patients. These genes could be playing a role in cancer resistance to aromatase inhibitors and could be used to help identify those who have an increased risk of breast cancer becoming resistance to these group of drugs. They hope that these results will help to understand who would most benefit from aromatase inhibitors and who would benefit more from different treatments.

Dr Hannah Garner, from the Netherlands Cancer Institute, aimed to understand why some breast cancers respond well to a type of immunotherapy called checkpoint inhibitors, while others don’t. She found that there was a higher number of eosinophils, a type of immune cell, in people with triple negative breast cancer whose cancer responded well to checkpoint inhibitors compared to those whose cancer did not. Further experiments in mice confirmed that eosinophils had a central role in making this treatment effective. Hannah hopes that this new information could help increase the effectiveness of checkpoint inhibitors.

Research on prevention and early detection of breast cancer

Several talks were focused on the prevention and early detection of breast cancer. Professor Annie Anderson, from the University of Dundee, presented her work on the ActWELL study, which Breast Cancer Now was also involved with. The study aimed to reduce women’s risk of developing breast cancer by offering to help them lose weight when they attended breast screening if the women were overweight. Researchers found that offering personalised diet advice and walking plans, as well as access to volunteer coaches, doubled the likelihood of women achieving and maintaining a weight loss that could improve their health.

Professor David French, from the University of Manchester, presented his findings looking at whether women who are at low risk of breast cancer could be screened less frequently. This project is funded by Breast Cancer Now. To offer a tailored screening programme, it is important to understand the views of women, screening professionals and policymakers. All groups were concerned about the current lack of evidence regarding the safety of longer intervals between screening appointments for low-risk women. But most women at low risk of breast cancer were receptive to this idea if they saw clear evidence that it was safe. Policy experts were also positive but wanted to make sure that we can accurately identify who is at low risk of breast cancer and who isn’t.

These were the highlights of this year’s NCRI Virtual Showcase. Even amongst what has been a turbulent year, it’s amazing to see how research and care have adapted to the crisis. Hopefully, we can take what we have learnt throughout the pandemic, and use this to further improve care and speed up research. We look forward to hearing what exciting breakthroughs researchers have made at next year’s conference.


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