Cancer - will there ever be a cure?

Even two decades ago it was still seen as the kiss of death. It was not discussed; in fact, it was almost something to be ashamed of and kept within the family, like a dark secret.

Even two decades ago it was still seen as the kiss of death.

It was not discussed; in fact, it was almost something to be ashamed of and kept within the family, like a dark secret.

As we live longer, cancer is something that more and more of us have to confront - even if not directly, we all know someone who has been affected by this disease.

However, in the future, will it still play such a major part in our lives as it does now, or will it be something, as some scientists believe, which we will live with but not die from?

In the UK in 2004, 356,992 people were diagnosed with cancer, with four types - breast, lung, bowel (colorectal) and prostate - accounting for more than half of all new cases.

The following year, there were 153,491 deaths from cancer.

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Cancer expert Prof Dylan Edwards, who will give a lecture at UEA on Thursday on the long search for a cure, said: "In the past, cancer wasn't talked about, it was feared and hidden away. People had it and then they died quickly, there wasn't a notion that it was treatable."

It was John Hunter (1728-1793) who suggested that some cancers might be cured by surgery, while William Conrad Roentgen's discovery of X-ray technology led to its use, in the form of radiation, for cancer treatment by 1899.

The first drug was initially developed for chemical warfare during the first and second world wars. Patients were first injected with it in the 1940s and as well as proving temporarily effective, it also led the way for research into further treatments.

These days new discoveries occur on an almost weekly basis, giving hope to millions of people, but the big question is, will it ever be cured?

Prof Edwards said: "It is a question I get asked a lot, but it has a long answer. For the first part, I explain that cancer is not a single disease, with a single cause or a single way of treating it. There is also an implicit link between cancer and ageing. People are living longer, so there is a more inherent risk of getting cancer.

"There have been huge strides in tackling particular cancers. Some are very treatable and patients have got a very good chance of survival compared to 20 or 30 years ago, when it was almost a guaranteed death warrant.

"Part of the revolution in medicine was antibiotics - it unmasked the trend towards increasing cancers as people got older.

"As for the future, we have to recognise that we will never eliminate incidence of cancer but there are going to be ways to intervene earlier in the process. The goal is: people die with cancer, but not of it. We need to take cancer from an acute killer to something that people live with, like arthritis."

Prof Edwards' lecture traces developments since 1971 when president Richard Nixon declared war on cancer with the intent of "conquering this dread disease".

He will review current knowledge about the molecular origins of cancer and ask whether new generations of targeted therapies can crack the cancers that have resisted conventional treatments.

His lecture will also explore the links between ageing and cancer, the causes of metastasis (cancer spread), and the unexpected insights that are coming from

areas such as evolutionary biology.

Prof Edwards is based at UEA's School of Biological Sciences where he specialises in breast, prostate and head and neck tumours.

He is also scientific adviser to the Norfolk-based cancer charity, the Big C Appeal.

"We have witnessed outstanding progress. Many types of cancer, such as childhood leukaemias and testicular cancer, are now treatable and we have gained an enormous amount of knowledge about the genetic basis of cancer," he added.

"But death rates for some cancers have stubbornly refused to fall and in the early 21st century cancer is still with us."

One of the reasons for improving survival rates is the money pumped into research.

The Big C has raised £12m since it was formed in 1980.

Sharon Hulbert, marketing and communications manager, said: "Money comes in to us in a variety of ways, but the main one is via legacies where people remember us in their wills.

"It is used in numerous ways. For example, we built the Big C Centre at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital which is about giving help, support and information to local people who are affected by cancer - and not just patients but their families too."

The human spirit is a remarkable thing which plays a massive part in the battle against this disease, but it is science that we must rely upon to provide us, if not with a cure, then at least with a better way of living with it.

The free lecture, followed by a wine reception, takes place in Lecture Theatre 2 at UEA on Thursday at 7.30pm.

To register, send an e-mail to sci.talks@uea.ac.uk

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