2023 roundup: 5 of our most important cancer research stories of the year

2023 has been a big year for Cancer Research UK. From launching our Manifesto for Cancer Research and Care to showing that more than 1 million lives have been saved since the 1980s, there has been a lot to celebrate.

So, to end the year, we want to highlight just a few of our most exciting research stories of the year….

Targeting brain tumours

At the moment, the most common treatment option for gliomas, a type of brain tumour, is surgery. But while its currently the best option, it’s an invasive and risky procedure.

Ideally, we’d want to give people with brain tumours a treatment like chemotherapy, but something called the blood-brain barrier makes that much more difficult than in other tumour types.

The barrier prevents the drug from getting into the brain and therefore the tumour, which makes it ineffective.

Research from the University of Sheffield could change that.

The team have designed a new magnetic device that could be used to guide chemotherapies through the blood-brain barrier. Worn like a helmet, this device creates a magnetic field around the tumours that attracts tiny magnetic particles to that area.

The team attached these magnetic particles to a chemotherapy drug called temozolomide and put the device to the test in mice. The results showed that the magnetised temozolomide significantly reduced the size of the mice’s tumours and extended their survival much more than giving standard, un-magnetised temozolomide.

We’d need to test this method of delivering treatments further before making the jump into humans, but the team are still looking to the future. They’ve already designed a human-sized helmet to house the magnets, and asked brain tumour patients to try them on and give feedback.

So, while it might be a way off yet, magnetic drug delivery has the potential to change the face of brain tumour treatment, offering patients a kinder, more flexible treatment.

Shedding new light on lung cancer evolution

Earlier this year, TRACERx, our flagship lung cancer study, published a suite of new results revealing the secrets of how lung cancer can evolve, spread and resist treatment.

These new findings ranged from uncovering how cancer may cause a wasting syndrome called cachexia to how DNA from ancient viruses can be reactivated in tumours to accelerate their growth.

One study focussed on small clusters of different cells within a tumour called subclones.

“By looking at different pieces of the same tumour, we can trace back how it developed in a particular patient,” said Dr Alexander Frankell, who led this project.

And knowing how the tumour has evolved from the beginning can give us clues as to what a person’s cancer might do next.

But not only that, by analysing the tumours of over 400 patients, the researchers were also able to spot patterns and shed some light on why some patients have a worse prognosis than others.

They spotted some mutations that were associated with worse outcomes and increased likelihood of the cancer spreading or coming back after being removed by surgery.

Armed with this knowledge, doctors treating people with lung cancer could identify those whose cancer is most at risk of returning after surgery and intervene by following up with further treatment, like chemotherapy, to help prevent it from coming back.

That was just 1 of 7 studies TRACERx published results from this year, with each one giving us new pieces of the puzzle that is lung cancer.

The team behind TRACERx have started work on TRACERx EVO, a new 7-year programme building on the findings of TRACERx, allowing us to uncover even more about how lung cancer evolves and evades treatment.

Improving immunotherapies

While chemotherapy, surgery and radiotherapy are the cornerstones of cancer treatment, advances in immunotherapy are making it an increasingly effective option. Immunotherapy uses our own immune systems to fight cancer.

One type of immunotherapy uses a special type of virus called an oncolytic virus to both kill tumour cells and stimulate a response from a person’s immune system.

But, as it’s a virus, if the immune system finds the virus before the virus finds the tumour, it will destroy it, meaning it has no therapeutic effect. And that’s a problem for using it as a treatment.

Researchers at the University of Sheffield have found a way to overcome this problem: by hiding the virus inside immune cells.

If we hide the virus in an immune cell, that cell will then travel in the bloodstream with no problem, until it reaches a tumour. At that point, the virus leaks out of the cell and infects the tumour cells, killing them in the process.

The team trialled this treatment in mice with triple negative breast cancer (TNBC), which traditionally has fewer treatment options, and found that it helped them survive their cancer for longer.

Using oncolytic viruses inside immune cells could therefore represent a new treatment option for TNBC and other cancers like it that form ‘cold’ tumours, meaning there aren’t a lot of immune cells in them.

Revolutionising cervical cancer treatment

Over the last decade, cervical cancer mortality rates have decreased by around a sixth (18%) in females in the UK (2017-2019). But thanks to INTERLACE, a clinical trial we funded, that rate could decrease even further.

“This is the biggest improvement in outcomes in this disease in over 20 years,” said Dr Mary McCormack, the lead investigator of the trial.

INTERLACE investigated whether six weeks of chemotherapy before beginning the standard treatment, chemoradiation (CRT), can help more women with advanced cervical cancer survive without their cancer returning than CRT alone.

And the results could revolutionise how we treat cervical cancer. It showed that the initial 6 weeks of chemotherapy cuts the risk of death or of the disease returning within the first 5 years after diagnosis by 35%.

And if that weren’t enough, the two drugs used for the initial treatment, carboplatin and paclitaxel, are already approved for use, so could become a new standard of care relatively quickly.

“I’m incredibly proud of all the patients who participated in the trial,” McCormack added. “Their contribution has allowed us to gather the evidence needed to improve treatment of cervical cancer patients everywhere.”

Revealing progress in breast cancer

The data from a study we funded revealed that women in England diagnosed with early invasive breast cancer today are around two-thirds less likely to die from the disease within the first 5 years after diagnosis than they were 20 years ago.

“The prognosis for patients with breast cancer has improved,” says Dr David Dodwell from the University of Oxford’s Department of Population Health. “And that improvement is dramatic.”

And these results weren’t the only good news we saw in breast cancer research this year.

In breast cancer prevention news, the BCAN-RAY (Breast Cancer Risk Assessment in Young Women) project, launched in memory of Sarah Harding, recruited its first participant.

BCAN-RAY will be one of the first research studies in the world to identify new ways to predict the risk of younger women getting breast cancer.

Also, the breast cancer treatment anastrozole was licensed as an option for preventing the disease in high-risk women in the UK in November.

Research suggests that just one in four eligible women taking anastrozole could prevent around 2,000 cases of breast cancer in England, helping more people live longer lives free from the fear of cancer.

A year in review

Each of these stories is an incredible example of the progress we’ve made in cancer research this year, but it is by no means an exhaustive list.

Results from the PEACE study revealed how some skin cancers stop responding to treatment at the end of life; researchers in Oxford and Cambridge found that if we can lower the amount of formaldehyde in our cells, we might be able to reduce the risk of blood cancers; and another team discovered that removing cells called senescent cells could prevent some lung cancers.

Cancer Grand Challenges, the funding initiative we co-founded with the National Cancer Institute in the US, also announced 9 new research challenges, and shortlisted 12 international teams that applied for funding to take them on. The successful teams will be announced next year.

2023 has been a fantastic year for cancer research and it’s thanks to you, our supporters, who make everything we do possible.

We’re looking forward to seeing how our research helps drive progress even further in 2024.

Until then, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Cancer Research UK.