I am sure I have mentioned before that I am not a scientist....! But, as a non-scientist working alongside some amazing and inspirational colleagues in the field of cancer research, I find myself reflecting at the start of this year, about the work we do at the John van Geest Cancer Research Centre and the prospect for saving a lot of lives as we learn more about 'Cracking the cancer code'.
The recent Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) results have demonstrated that the cancer research going on at Nottingham Trent University is as good as any in the world. This is validation for my hard working colleagues and a great platform for the key strands of our work. Various newspaper cancer stories over the past few days highlight that the challenge is ongoing; we understand a lot about the randomness of cancer mutations but not necessarily why - but there is no doubt that we can do something to help ourselves with sensible lifestyle choices regarding diet, exercise and stress levels.
Then there are the established links between smoking and excessive alcohol abuse with various cancers, not to mention the virally triggered cancers like the link between HPV and Cervical Cancer.
The articles acknowledge that early diagnosis is a key factor in improved life expectancy and scientists internationally are working on developing better diagnostic tools. But early diagnosis is only half the story. How do we then treat patients and with what?
Immunology is the next step in our war on Cancer. Whilst random mutations are happening in the body routinely, our immune system is programmed to recognise and neutralise these as quickly as they happen. However, if the immune system becomes compromised or suppressed for any reason, its ability to spot and deal with the mutated cells is diminished and because cells are pre-programmed to copy themselves exactly, the mutation grows and forms a nucleus or tumour. At this point early intervention offers the best chance of survival but as we know some cancers are hard to diagnose because the symptoms don't present themselves until the disease is very advanced and has often metastasised to other parts of the body via blood or the lymph system - the battle is then much, much harder.
Surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy all impact on the health of the patient in very different ways, but by identifying specific biomarkers in a patient's cells or blood to diagnose the cancer in the first place, we will ultimately be able to create vaccines that stimulate the immune system into attacking the cancer. People will live with cancer rather than it being viewed as a death sentence and in many cases the cancer might be cleared up completely. Cancer cells can often lie dormant for years and whilst we do not understand yet why they become reactivated, we will be able to programme vaccines that leave a marker in memory cells in the patient, so that the immune system will recognise the mutation if it reappears and deal with it.
All of this is still being researched but it seems to me, after seeing a dear friend die over a prolonged period, as he endured the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy in a last ditch attempt to gain a few more precious days/weeks with his family, that anything we can do to make the treatment more bearable, let alone more successful than some of the current treatment options, has got be a good thing.