September 2011 podcast transcript
This month - a molecule found in bacteria could reveal new cancer drug targets, researchers discover alarmingly low levels of public awareness about bowel cancer, sunburn rife as men skimp on sunscreen, scientists discover a new gene implicated in ovarian cancer, and we take a look at the frontlines in the battle to control tobacco.
Welcome to the Cancer Research UK podcast. I’m Angela Balakrishnan.
Cancer Research UK scientists have purified a molecule from bacteria that could reveal new drug targets for inherited breast and ovarian cancers, and potentially other cancer types too.
Dr Julie Sharp, senior science information manager at Cancer Research UK, explains what impact this discovery could have on cancer treatment in the future.
“The scientists were interested in a protein called PARG. They know it's involved in DNA repair, and that's a really important process in cancer, but this protein's really difficult to study – it's very large. So they used bacteria, which are easy to manipulate and they have a smaller version of this protein, and that meant they could work out its 3-D structure. So now they can take this information and apply it to human cells
The next step will be to see if they can design drugs that will target PARG, and they think this might be particularly useful in cancers such as breast and ovarian cancer where there's a faulty BRCA gene – this is similar to other drugs that are being investigated called PARP inhibitors. They think these drugs might work in a similar way and be targeted towards specific cancers.”
A Cancer Research UK-funded study has revealed alarmingly low levels of public awareness about bowel cancer, despite the disease being the second biggest cause of cancer deaths in the UK.
The researchers discovered that many people did not know that lifestyle factors like diet, weight and exercise affected the risk of bowel cancer.
Dr Emily Power, study author and health information manager at Cancer Research UK, tells us more about the findings.
“We know that detecting bowel cancer earlier can really improve your chance of survival, so through our work on the National Awareness and Early Diagnosis Initiative, we're working with partners such as the Department of Health to try and raise awareness of symptoms of cancer and encourage people to visit their GP as early as possible.
It's important people are aware of the symptoms of bowel cancer they could detect, and this includes things like any unusual change in their normal bowel habits, bleeding from their bottom and blood in their stool or poo.
As well as being aware of these symptoms, people can do some quite simple changes to their normal lifestyle that can reduce their risk of bowel cancer. Things like trying to keep a healthy weight, and eating a healthy diet low in red and processed meat and high in fruit and vegetables.”
Nearly 9 out of ten British adults admit their skin has been sunburnt – with almost half experiencing pain as a result of being in the sun.
A YouGov survey, commissioned by Cancer Research UK, showed that among men fewer than half used at least factor 15 sunscreen to protect their skin, compared to two thirds of women.
Men are also less likely than women to protect themselves in other ways, such as spending time in the shade or covering up with clothing.
The survey showed that nearly all Brits are aware that getting sunburnt increases the risk of skin cancer.
Yet for many reasons people are still putting themselves at risk of skin cancer by getting sunburnt.
Chris Lunn, Cancer Research UK’s SunSmart campaign manager, talks us through the survey results.
“This survey shows that there's a big gap between what people know and how they behave in the sun, and this highlights one of the challenges we face in halting the rise in melanoma rates.
People know that getting sunburnt can increase the risk of skin cancer, but many don't bother to protect their skin from burning, and the results of this survey suggest that men seem to be much worse than women.
Over the past 25 years in Britain, rates of malignant melanoma – the most serious form of skin cancer – have risen faster than any of the most common cancers in males or females. Despite more women being diagnosed with melanoma, more men die from the disease.
It's very important to remember that your skin doesn't have to be red-raw, peeling or blistering to have sunburn damage – if your skin has gone red in the sun, that's sunburn.
The British weather causes a dilemma because we don't tend to get many sunny summer says, so when it does shine, people tend to overdo it. They don't realise that you can burn even when it's cool or slightly cloudy. So whether you're at home or abroad, people should think how to use the shade, clothing and sunscreen – applied generously and regularly – to protect themselves.”
Cancer Research UK scientists have found that women who carry a faulty copy of a gene called RAD51D have an almost one in 11 chance of developing ovarian cancer – one of the most significant cancer gene discoveries for more than a decade.
Tests to identify those at highest risk are expected to be available within a few years and may lead to some women deciding to take preventative steps, such as having their ovaries removed, in order to beat the disease. The discovery should also speed the search for new drugs.
Dr Kat Arney, Science Information Manager at Cancer Research UK, explains the significance of this discovery.
“This discovery is the culmination of an impressive piece of work in which researchers have looked in great detail at the genes of more than 900 families affected by many cases of ovarian cancer.
It turns out that carrying a fault in RAD51D means a woman is around 6 times more likely to develop ovarian cancer than someone in the general population. Fortunately these RAD51D faults are relatively rare, accounting for around 50 or so of the six and a half thousand women diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year in the UK.
But once tests are developed that can look for this faulty gene, it could be very important for families affected by many cases of this disease, as it opens the door to preventive measures that could save lives.”
Researchers at the University of Stirling are fighting a request by Philip Morris International, the world’s largest tobacco company and maker of Marlboro cigarettes, to see the university’s raw data on smoking habits.
Our reporter, Henry Scowcroft, investigates.
Henry: Under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, tobacco giant Philip Morris is trying to get hold of raw data from the University of Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing. The data come from a study – funded by Cancer Research UK – aimed at understanding why 85 per cent of adult smokers started smoking when they were children, and is made up of thousands of interviews with children aged 11-16. The researchers were attempting to analyse attitudes and behaviour towards cigarette marketing, packaging and shop displays.
I’m sitting here with Professor Gerard Hastings from the University of Stirling and leader of the study. Gerard, why are you studying what young people think about smoking, and what has your research found out?
“I think it’s really important to try and understand why it is that so many smokers start in childhood. Virtually no adults start smoking. It doesn’t make any sense – if somebody doesn’t smoke, you wouldn’t try and persuade them to start as an adult. But with kids it does happen so we need to understand, to try and cut off the flow of smokers before it starts. Because once people start, dependence on nicotine makes it very difficult to stop in many instances.
So if we can understand what the attractions are of tobacco, then we can inform policy-makers and public health, medics and so on, about what kind of campaigns might be effective at stemming that flow of new smokers into the marketplace.
As to what the reasons are why young people start smoking, it’s partly about it being a ‘cool’ and alternative ‘noir’ thing to do, it’s about preparing oneself for adulthood and a mistaken sense that smoking is somehow an indicator of being grown up.
Above all, and underpinning all of these, are the efforts of a multi-national tobacco industry who is absolutely desperately conscious of the fact that if they don’t start young people smoking, they’re out of business in a generation. They will publicly deny that this is of any import to them, and publicly say they do not want young people to smoke. But the brutal truth is that when 85 per cent of your customers start in childhood, you can’t gainsay that.”
Henry: Why are tobacco companies so keen to access your raw data, given that you’ll presumably be publishing it at some point anyway?
“Of course! We’re an academic research unit – there’s tremendous pressure on us to publish for a start. The university wants as many publications as possible and the government has a system for counting how many publications you have, so absolutely we have to do it.
And there are very careful checks and balances about how that publication process takes place. Carefully researched and managed journals where all the articles in them are carefully peer-reviewed by experts in the field to ensure two vital things – one, that the data is accurate and what we’re concluding is justified by the evidence (if you like, the scientific check), but also to make sure that the people who have participated in the study are in no way harmed by the publication of the paper, so an ethical check as well.
It’s vital that those provisions are in place, and the great danger of an FOI request from a tobacco company is that it rides roughshod through those very careful protections.”
Henry: What do they want to do with this data? Why are they after it?
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t think they are after it. I don’t think they anticipate ever getting their hands on this data. I cannot contemplate the prospect of a court anywhere in the UK – least of all in Scotland which has an enormously enlightened legal system – I can’t imagine that any adjudication coming down saying that the rights of an enormous multinational tobacco corporation supercede the rights of a 13-year-old child.
It’s just not going to happen. I think this is principally about making our lives very difficult because we’re researching things they’d rather were not researched.”
Henry: Presumably the tobacco companies would argue that this is publicly-funded research and should be available to the public.
“Technically they would be wrong to argue that – it’s not publicly-funded, it’s funded by a charity and charities are not susceptible to Freedom of Information. The University is being [asked] because it is a public body, but this data is collected by a charity, so the lawyers will keep themselves happy for several months on that one.”
Henry: Going back to the point you made at the beginning. This research will help to inform campaigns aimed at changing policy. I wanted to ask you about the campaign for plain packaging of cigarettes.
We’ve recently seen when we’ve talked about this in public – for example on our Facebook wall – people have said things like “This isn’t going to make me give up smoking, this wouldn’t have helped my relatives give up smoking.” Why are we campaigning for plain packaging for cigarettes?
“I think it goes back to our earlier conversation that the vast majority of smokers start as children. We know – and there’s ample evidence of this now – that tobacco marketing encourages them to take up the habit.
Everybody denies that marketing has an impact on them – who of us would admit that we bought something because of an advertisement? You’d feel a right twit doing so, but the reality is that all this money that’s spent on marketing is spent for good reason. It works, it encourages people to consume, and we know that tobacco marketing encourages kids to take up smoking.
Packaging has become an increasingly prominent part of that marketing effort, not least because the other ones have been forbidden. They’re not allowed to use billboards or television or all the other means of communication they can. So the pack has come into remarkable prominence for the tobacco industry.
In recent years they’ve invested a great deal of money in redesign, both in terms of the colours and effects they use on the livery of the pack, but also in the physical design – for example, opening in novel ways, changing the shape so it looks like a perfume bottle or an mp3 player – all sorts of things like that which palpably interest and intrigue children.
We’ve taken these packs into focus groups and you can see the kids’ eyes light up as they pick them up. One 15-year-old said to our researchers “Smoking this Silk Cut pack makes me feel like a lady”. That’s absolutely cutting into why kids take up smoking – to pretend to be adults, and the packaging is reinforcing that and helping them do it.
And the tragic consequence of this is that one in two who don’t succeed in quitting the habit end up being killed by it.”
Henry: I’m now with Jean King, Cancer Research UK’s director of tobacco control. Jean, what do you make of all this? What will happen if the tobacco companies get hold of the data?
“Clearly it’s very worrying if companies get hold of data about why young people start smoking. But more importantly we think they’re just trying to waste the time of researchers who are looking into ways to try and help prevent children from smoking in the first place.”
Henry: Why is it so important for Cancer Research UK to take a strong stand against tobacco companies?
“We have to take a stand against tobacco companies because their product is the cause of more than a quarter of all cancer deaths, and these are all entirely preventable cancer deaths. And we know the tobacco companies have misled their consumers about the harm and the addictiveness of the product, and we know they have to recruit new smokers to replace those who are dying prematurely because of using that product.
Most smokers start as children under the age of 18, so the tobacco companies have a lot to answer for. As an organisation dedicated to beating cancer, we have to take a stand against them.”
Henry: Why do you think this is all happening now?
“I think we’re now pursuing policies that are really starting to bite - you can gauge how effective a policy is going to be by how much opposition we get from the industry. We fought a long, hard battle to get displays in shops covered up, because we know these are attractive to children and young people, and plain packaging is our next step in trying to protect children from tobacco marketing.
Clearly this is worrying the tobacco companies, and they’re trying to do whatever they can to obstruct us and prevent us from getting on with the job.”
We’ll be back next month with all the latest news and features. In the meantime, you can keep up to date by reading our Science Update blog – that’s scienceblog.cancerresearchuk.org
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