Cancer treatment enters 'very exciting' era
Cancer treatment is entering a “very exciting” era as a number of projects reach fruition that could stop the disease being a major cause of death, Britain’s leading cancer scientist is to claim.
2:55PM BST 04 Oct 2009
Sir David Lane, chief scientist at Cancer Research UK, believes care will be dramatically transformed as teams close in on techniques that are likely to lead to the creation of a new generation of drugs.
“The next few years are going to be very exciting,” he will tell the National Cancer Research Institute.
“There are new drugs coming through that look very promising. Discoveries that were made 25 years ago are now having their impact in the clinic.
“It would be wrong to raise hopes for patients in the very short term, but it would be unimaginable if we did not turn this work into something immensely useful in 10 to 20 years.
“I think that cancer will become a disease that is not a major cause of death.”
Dr Lane will be the keynote speaker at the annual conference of the National Cancer Research Institute being held in Birmingham.
Dr Lane and the delegation will celebrate the 30th anniversary of his discovery of a human protein called p53, shown to play a pivotal role in the spread of nearly all cancers.
He said that the protein remained at the centre of the research.
“I was only a junior scientist at the time. It was clear p53 was important,” he said.
“However, none of us had any idea that it would turn out to be vital to understanding cancer. It is almost a universal factor we now realise.”
Known as the “guardian of the genome”, p53 is key to the prevention of cancers.
The disease arises because DNA errors build up inside the body’s cells. It is the role of p53 to correct those errors and prevent cancerous mutations from spreading. It organises repairs to damaged cells and, in those beyond repair, it arranges for the cell to be killed off before it can spread and divide.
However, sometimes p53 becomes damaged itself and cannot do its job.
As a result, rogue cancer cells are able to form a tumour.
“In this sense, you can think of cancers as the living dead – they are made up of cells that should have been killed off but which somehow have not and which pass through the body with deadly consequences,” said Dr Lane.
The crucial point about the discovery of p53’s almost universal role in the formation of nearly all of the 200 types of cancer that affect humans is that it has raised immediate prospects of developing treatments for a wide range of tumours.
Hence the excitement among cancer experts and the number of scientific studies now focused on the protein. These studies led last year to the publication of an average of 10 scientific reports on p53 every day.
Many of these studies are already producing results, as Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, will tell the conference.
“We are starting to use our understanding of p53 to select treatment,” he said.
Dr Lane said what was now needed was to develop a drug that could pinpoint a cell with no p53 in it or possessed a mutated form of p53.
It could then destroy that cell before it could spread and cause cancer.
“That is the ultimate goal. We have a way to go, but we are confident. The last few years have been immensely encouraging.”
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