June 2010 podcast transcript
This month, women over 70 want to be given more information on breast screening, scientists find five more genetic variations that increase the risk of breast cancer, and Cancer Research UK launches another of its national cancer centres in Leeds. I’m Laura Dibb from Cancer Research UK.
Women are routinely invited every three years for breast screening on the NHS from when they are 50 until they are 70. After 70 they no longer get invited but can still ask to be screened every three years.
But research this month from Cancer Research UK’s journal, the British Journal of Cancer, found that many women over 70 don’t realise screening may be beneficial for them or that they can request a mammogram.
The survey of 400 women over 70 also showed that most would like more information on the pros and cons of breast screening as they get older, and would want to keep being invited.
Our head of policy Sarah Woolnough explains why we think more should be done to make sure older women are fully aware of their screening options.
“We think it’s really important that women are made aware of the pros and cons of breast screening. This is a role, in our view, for charities but also the government and the health service, in order than women are well informed about the screening programme, and they feel able to make a choice about whether they receive screening or not.”
Cancer Research UK scientists have found five new genetic variations that increase the risk of women developing breast cancer. The discovery could help doctors find new ways to prevent the disease, and improve diagnosis and treatment for women with these gene faults.
The researchers scanned the entire genetic code of women who either had breast cancer, or had a family history of the disease, and compared this to the genetic code of healthy women.
We already knew about 13 genetic variations linked to breast cancer. Finding others is important as it helps us understand more about the mechanisms behind the disease and could lead to new treatments in the future, as our science information officer Nell Barrie tells us.
“These genetic changes each have a small effect on a woman's risk of breast cancer, but they all add up. This work brings us a step closer to developing a test that can predict a woman's personal risk of developing the disease. A test like this could help identify women with a higher risk, and they can then make choices to help reduce their chances of developing breast cancer.
Understanding the genes that play a role in breast cancer is also essential for us to find new and better ways to treat the disease in the future.”
This month sees the launch of the new Cancer Research UK Centre in Leeds, the latest in a chain of national centres of excellence. The Centre is a collaboration between the charity, Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and the University of Leeds.
More than 15 such centres are being set up across the country, bringing together doctors, nurses, biologists, engineers and physicists to look for new ways to treat cancer.
Any new discoveries are taken straight from the laboratories into local hospitals so that patients will have access to the latest available treatments as quickly as possible.
Professor Tim Bishop, the chair of the centre explains what areas of cancer researchers in Leeds are focusing on, and what the Centre means for cancer patients in Leeds.
“The four areas that we’re focusing on to begin with are research into genetics, because we have extensive expertise in terms of being able to look at how developing cancers change their genetic profile.
So we can use those techniques to try and best evaluate the critical changes which are the ones that will feed into another aspect of our research – the ability to try and develop treatments that target those particular genetic changes.”
Also this month, scientists from the World Health Organisation announced results from Interphone, a large scale study investigating whether mobile phones are linked to cancer. But what are its conclusions? Our reporter Dr Kat Arney finds out.
Many of us use mobile phones every day, but do they increase our risk of cancer? That’s the question posed by the Interphone study, involving more than ten thousand people. Reporting of the results in the media has been bewildering, with some headlines claiming “Mobile phone study finds no link to solid tumours”, while others declare “Mobile phone study reveals cancer 'concerns' over heavy users” or tell us that the study was inconclusive. So what’s the real story?
To find out, I’m here with Ed Yong, Head of Evidence and Health Information at Cancer Research UK. So what does this study actually show?
“The overall picture from this study is that people who use mobile phones do not have a higher risk of brain cancer, and that supports the vast majority of other evidence on this topic which suggests that mobile phones –certainly within about ten years of use – are safe.
However, in this study we saw the people who were the heaviest users - the top ten per cent of users – had a higher risk of brain cancer, but as the study’s authors quite rightly point out, that is probably down to flaws in the study rather than actual effects of the phones. In this highest-use group, who supposedly had a higher risk of brain cancer, they were reporting really implausible amounts of mobile phone use – some of them were saying they were using their phones twelve hours a day, which is ridiculous, because that’s a huge amount of time. And if you think back twenty, thirty years ago, the cost alone would have been prohibitive.
In many ways interphone reflects a lot of other studies in this area, which suggests that it doesn’t provide strong evidence for a higher risk of brain cancer. But there are flaws in the study that prevent us from conclusively ruling out a link. All in all, a lot of evidence around mobile phones and cancer does have certain weaknesses, so for now all we can say is that there doesn’t seem to be a big cause for concern, but we should keep an eye out for future evidence.
Cancer Research UK supports the government’s precautionary stance – we feel that for the moment there is no strong evidence to make people worry about their mobile phone use. However, the government encourages that children should keep their phone use down to a minimum, because we don’t know very much about how mobile phones affect children’s brains, because their nervous systems are still developing. So the government recommends that children keep their call times short, and if adults are concerned about their mobile phone use then they can cut down as well – it’s entirely up to the individual.
There are two big questions at the moment, and two studies that are seeking to answer them. One is ‘What are the long-term effects of mobile phone use?’ These phones are still relatively new technology, so we need to look at how they affect our health twenty, maybe thirty years down the line. There’s a very big study called COSMOS, which is starting to recruit people now, that will address that. And also ‘What are the effects on children?’ and there is another study called MOBI-KIDS, which is starting to recruit children who have had brain cancer, and those who haven’t, and compare their mobile phone use.
If solid new evidence came out linking mobile phone to cancer, of course Cancer Research UK would consider that and maybe change our messages. We are an evidence-based organisation and we always want to make sure that our advice to people is based on the latest science.
However, it is worth remembering that, for the moment, various lines of evidence support the idea that mobile phones do not increase the risk of cancer. Results from human studies like Interphone, results from studies conducted on cells grown in the lab, and even national trends. We see that all around the world, despite the fact that mobile phone use has increased exponentially, rates of brain cancer haven’t gone up in the same way.”
So based on this study, and other research from around the world, the take-home message is that there isn’t any strong evidence linking mobile phone use to cancer. But the questions about long-term use and use by children highlight the need for further robust scientific research into phone use, such as the COSMOS and Mobikids studies Ed mentioned, and we look forward to seeing the results from those in the future.
That was Dr Kat Arney, talking to Ed Yong. We’ll be back next month with the latest cancer news. And until then, you can get the facts behind the headlines from our Science Update Blog – that’s scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org
- Presenter - Laura Dibb
- Script editors - Laura Dibb and Kat Arney
- Producer - Kat Arney
- Original music - Henry Scowcroft and Kat Arney
- With special thanks to all the contributors
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