Using stem cells to treat cancer

There are many scam artists around nowadays proclaiming the benefits of their particular unproven stem cell therapy, for anything from curing cancer to making paralysed people walk again. It’s not surprising really; stem cells are a pool of cells in every organ that are almost eternally youthful and can regenerate themselves and all other cells in the organ. They sound almost magical. However, last year the FDA (the US Food and Drug Administration) had to move to crack down on these clinics, citing the of lack of evidence that any of them work and a number of serious complications reported following treatment. Complications including patients in Florida dying, a woman developing bone fragments in eyelids following a stem cell facelift, and another developing nasal tissue in her spine after a doctor promised to cure her paralysis with stem cells.

It is a field ripe for abuse partly because it is one with so much potential. Stem cells do have fascinating possible applications, and there is a lot of research going in to them at the moment. Unfortunately, most exposure people have with them is in science fiction or alternative medicine. Which is why it was very interesting to see a study published last week that underlined how much real potential this field of research has. The study used mice instead of humans, so is still at an early stage, but is very promising nonetheless. Continue reading

Why screening is hard

It’s a simple fact that the most effective thing we can do to cure more cancers is to catch them earlier. If we find bladder cancer at an early stage, the five year survival is 88%; if we catch it at a late stage, when it has started spreading around the body, it drops below 15%. This is why we screen for certain diseases, including breast, bowel and cervical cancer. These large-scale screening programs are the best hope we have for majorly reducing the toll cancer takes on our lives. Continue reading

Recent advances in cancer therapy

First off, sorry for the lack of writing in the last few weeks; I’ve been in the middle of a job hunt, so my time has been limited by that. In the time I have taken off however, there have been some major news stories about cancer.

The week of the 15th February brought some pretty sensational headlines. These were about a trial of a new immunotherapy, which both The Times and the Independent proclaimed “a cure”, and The Guardian labelled as “unprecedented”.

Continue reading

A new technique to tackle malaria?

This week brought news of a fascinating new approach to preventing malaria. Malaria is an illness caused by a parasite that is spread by mosquitos and causes 219 million illnesses per year, and 500,000 deaths.

MosquitoThis statistic however, doesn’t convey the extent of a problem malaria poses. It is a disease that kills vulnerable people in countries least equipped to tackle it: 90% of those deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and shockingly almost 80% occur in children under 5 years old (400,000 deaths). Continue reading


fig15_killertSometimes it pays to think differently about a problem. Who would think that treating a cancer without actually targeting the cancer could be a viable strategy? But this is exactly what the latest major breakthrough in cancer therapy has shown.

The breakthrough is in a group of drugs called “Immune checkpoint blockers”. They have already provided remarkable results in the treatment of two of the most common and dangerous cancer types (melanoma skin cancer and lung cancer), and they are being tested in other tumour types with promising results so far. Interestingly, these efficient and powerful chemotherapies do not kill tumour cells directly. Instead, they are cleverly designed to boost the body’s own defences against the tumours. Continue reading

Gene therapy for cystic fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is a terrible disease, which often results in fatal lung failure by the age of 30. It is the most common genetic life-shortening disease in the Caucasian population, and it is caused by mutations in one single gene. The first gene therapies were tested in clinical trials in the early nineties. It felt like the cure was round the corner. However, more than 20 years later, we are still trying to find the best way of restoring the function of the damaged gene. Last month, the scientific journal Lancet respiratory Medicine published a study where a new gene therapy was tested on cystic fibrosis patients. This therapy was reported by several news outlets as a potential cure for cystic fibrosis by 2020. However, the truth is that the therapy failed to detect a relevant clinical benefit for the patients.

Why the lack of progress?

Read more about where we stand with gene therapy for cystic fibrosis in the blog post I wrote as a guest author for !

Tracking tumours with blood samples

This week, a couple of new studies (which can be found here and here) showed that we can track changes in a tumour through blood samples alone. To understand the importance of this it is worth knowing that chemotherapy is going through a radical change at the moment.

Vacutainer_blood_bottlesThe last few years have seen the introduction of a new generation of cancer drugs. These are targeted therapies, ones that are targeted not only towards a specific cancer but also towards specific sub-types of that cancer, based on the mutations that they have in their DNA. Not only are these chemotherapies more effective, but they should also cause fewer side effects than ones used in the past. Continue reading