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Health Insight March 2002: Latest cancer developments


Beams of light aimed at tumour cells could increase the expected lifespan of pancreatic cancer patients. Researchers at University College London used photodynamic therapy on sixteen patients with inoperable advanced pancreatic cancer, who were not expected to live long. A drug was given to sensitise cells to the effects of light, then light precisely aimed through a fibre-optic cable placed near the target tumour, killing the cancerous cells. Surgery and radiotherapy are difficult in pancreatic cancer, because the gland is tucked away close to vital organs and blood vessels. Professor Stanley Brown, director of the Leeds Centre for Photobiology and Photodynamic Therapy said, ‘Photodynamic therapy allows a targeted approach – it can be far less traumatic than surgery. I think in the future it will be used far more to treat early cancer and pre-cancerous conditions, as better screening picks them up.’

A study published recently says that doctors commonly fail to spot lung cancers on patient’s X-rays. This could mean cancers are not picked up at an early enough stage for surgery to be carried out – the most likely cure for the disease. Dr Peter Turkington, who co-wrote the paper, said that since the team’s research, guidance for doctors on how to spot problems was more widely available. However, Dr John Harvey, a spokesman for the British Thoracic Society, said that the UK needed more lung specialists and radiologists trained to read X-rays. ‘The point about all of this is that there is a need to have a chest X-ray looked at by a lung specialist.’ (Also see our story about a survey carried out by the Royal College of Radiologists in the ‘In brief’ section.)

The number of people dying from bowel cancer has fallen to a 10-year low, but increasing numbers are being diagnosed with the disease. Experts say increased awareness and better treatment have been key to the drop in deaths. The increase in numbers suffering from bowel cancer may be because people are living longer and there is a decline in death rates from other causes, such as heart disease and stroke. Bad diet could also be a factor. Cancer Research UK is launching a campaign, sponsored by Kellogg’s Bran Flakes, to encourage people to hold healthy breakfast parties to raise money for research into bowel and other cancers.

A panel of national experts, brought together by the British Thyroid Association, has produced the first set of evidence-based guidelines for the way thyroid cancer should be treated. ‘Guidelines for the management of thyroid cancer in adults’ focuses on the need for multi-disciplinary teams within each NHS region – an approach which needs to be adopted by the Regional Cancer Networks.

Cancer Research UK, Britain’s biggest cancer research charity is supporting mass genetic screening for predisposition to the disease. Research carried out at the Strangeways Research Laboratories in Cambridge suggests that many individually minor gene variations, inherited together, can multiply cancer risk. Cancer Research UK believes that lives would be saved by enabling those most at risk to be monitored more intensively and nipping early stage cancers in the bud.

Source: BBC Online, Press release (Royal College of Physicians), Guardian 4th March

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