Friday, 31 July 2009

Technology and the human factor

There we were, most of our staff crammed together in our largest meeting room for a presentation by one of the scientists whose research we support. The computer was fired up, the projector was on and the computer switched itself off. We can sequence the human genome but PowerPoint gets us every time. So everything was set up again and again the same problem – third time I went in search of our IT guru but sensible member of staff said that it looked like someone kicked the plug.......... and so it was. Human intervention removed we were ready to go.

Our mission is to beat breast cancer through supporting research and that goes beyond the research and also beyond publication in prestigious scientific journals so that other scientists can build on the work. It also extends to bringing that knowledge to the public – they give us 100 per cent of the money that supports the research so they are very much entitled to know how effective it is. Our team here is part of that public so they go along to research projects and from time to time the scientists come here to talk about what they are doing.

Survival is not enough

Over the past thirty years the number of women surviving breast cancer for ten years has increased by more than a third and many of those treated today could expect to survive longer than that. So thirty years ago the thought that the treatment would save your life but you might end up with debilitating enduring side effects years later just wasn’t much of an issue. It is now.

Dr Paul Symonds came from the University of Leicester to talk to us about the research that he and Dr George Tanteles are doing. The background is that on diagnosis of breast cancer a patient may be offered several forms of treatment including radiotherapy; in fact the majority of breast cancer patients receive this form of treatment which is used to destroy any breast cancer cells left behind after surgery and reduce the risk of local recurrence.

Radiotherapy is a very effective treatment for breast cancer but a small percentage of patients develop unpleasant side effects – sometimes well after treatment has finished and these effects are life-long. These can range from chronic pain to heart disease and at the moment we have no way of knowing which patients will be affected.

Paul and George believe that they have identified a genetic marker which could lead to a test to identify the risk of radiation side effects which then could play a part in determining treatment. If successful this could be a saliva or blood test and would be quite cheap to do. We are still a few years away from this but it is a step closer to surviving well – not just surviving.

If you would like to read the full paper on this study, it can be found on the British Journal of Cancer website (you have to subscribe to read it, or contact me).

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