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Thyroid cancer research

Find out about the latest UK research and clinical trials looking at thyroid cancer.

All cancer treatments have to be fully researched before they can be used for everyone. This is so we can be sure that:

  • they work
  • they work better than the treatments already available 
  • they are known to be safe

The latest research into the causes and treatment of thyroid cancer is outlined below.

Diagnosing thyroid cancer

Researchers are looking at way to better diagnose and find thyroid cancer early.


Research is looking at different types of scans to see if they can diagnose thyroid cancer more accurately. One study is looking at scans similar to the MRI scan. These are the:

  • diffusion weighted MRI (DWI) scans that helps show up damaged tissue
  • magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS) scans that look at chemical changes in the body

Another study is looking at a particular ultrasound method. It is trying to find out if real time ultrasound elastography can tell the difference between cancerous and non cancerous thyroid nodules. Other research is studying the use of the PET-CT scan to help pick up thyroid cancers.

Blood tests

Researchers are looking at the protein and gene information in blood samples of people with thyroid cancer. They hope to use the results to develop a  blood test to help diagnose thyroid cancer.

Role of genetics

UK researchers have collected over 2,000 blood samples from people with thyroid cancer. They are now looking at these samples to try to identify genes that increase the risk of developing the disease. 

Certain gene changes in thyroid cancer cells might give doctors an idea of how the cancer is likely to behave. Some studies show that papillary thyroid cancers with a change in the BRAF gene are more likely to spread or come back (recur). Knowing if a tumour has a BRAF mutation might help doctors to make treatment decisions in the future. More research is needed in this area.

Research into radiotherapy treatment

Radioactive iodine treatment

A trial involving many centres across the UK is looking at radioactive treatment. It is trying to find out whether this treatment is needed for low risk thyroid cancer (papillary or follicular thyroid cancer).

If you have had your thyroid gland removed, and your cancer hasn't spread outside your thyroid gland, it is very unlikely that any cancer cells are left after surgery. So you might not need any further treatment, but doctors want to make sure that this is the case. 

External radiotherapy

Intensity modulated radiotherapy(IMRT)
Researchers are looking at a type of external beam radiotherapy called IMRT. During IMRT, the radiotherapy beam and the dose within the beam are shaped to match the size and thickness of the tumour.

Giving radiotherapy in this way means that the radiotherapy beam includes smaller amounts of healthy tissue. So you might have fewer or milder side effects.

One trial is trying to find the safest and best dose of IMRT for advanced thyroid cancer.

Planning radiotherapy
Before you start radiotherapy, the doctors plan it carefully. They make sure the radiotherapy is treating the exact area of the cancer. To do this you have a planning CT scan.

The THRIFT study is looking at another type of scan called a PET-CT scan. The aim of this study is to find out if it is possible to use PET-CT scan for people with thyroid cancer.

Treatment with biological therapies

Cancer growth blockers

Researchers have been looking at a group of cancer growth blocker drugs called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKI).

Cabozantanib and vandetanib are TKIs that have both shown promise in trials for people with advanced meduallary thyroid cancer. People who had these drugs had a longer time before their cancer started to grow again. But research does not yet know whether they lived for longer overall.

These drugs are both now licensed in the UK for some people with advanced medullary thyroid cancer who cannot have surgery.

International trials are continuing to look at the use of these drugs (and other TKIs) for thyroid cancer.  Other TKI drugs under investigation include:

  • sorafenib
  • pazopanib
  • sunitiinib
  • lenvatinib
  • motesanib phosphate

Drugs to block blood vessel growth

Cancers need to grow their own blood vessels as they get bigger so that they can continue to grow. This is called angiogenesis.

Some drugs can block cancers from developing new blood vessels (angiogenesis inhibitors). Studies have shown that thyroid cancers have a richer blood supply than normal thyroid tissue. So this type of cancer might respond to treatment that blocks the development of blood vessels (anti angiogenesis).

Axitinib is a type of angiogenesis inhibitor. It is being tested in people whose thyroid cancer has started to grow again despite treatment with radioactive iodine.

Monoclonal antibodies

There are different types of monoclonal antibodies and they work in different ways.

Pembrolizumab (also known as MK3475) is a type of monoclonal antibody that stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells. It targets and blocks a protein called PD-1 on the surface of certain immune cells called T-cells. Blocking PD-1 triggers the T-cells to find and kill cancer cells.

Research is looking at pembrolizumab for certain types of advanced cancer. This includes some people with advanced papillary or medullar thyroid cancer.   

Information and help

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