Research into rare cancers

Researchers around the world are looking at better ways to diagnose and treat rare cancers.

Go to Cancer Research UK’s clinical trials database if you are looking for a trial for a rare cancer in the UK. You need to talk to your specialist if there are any trials that you think you might be able to take part in.

When in the trials database, click on both the recruiting and closed tabs at the top of the page.

Research and clinical trials

We have to research all cancer treatments before doctors can use them for everyone. This is so we can be sure that:

  • they work
  • they work better than, or as well as, the treatments already available
  • they are safe

First of all, scientists develop and test treatments in laboratories. This research is at a very early stage, and the treatment is not ready for patients.

Potential treatments progress to clinical trials once they show promise in the laboratory. This is when doctors test the treatment in people.


There might be fewer clinical trials for rare types of cancer than for more common types of cancer.

It is hard to organise and run trials for rare cancers. For example, it can take a long time to recruit the number of patients needed.

Getting enough patients is critical to the success of a trial. The results wouldn't be powerful enough if the trial involves too few people. For example, results won't be able to prove whether one types of treatment is better than another.

The International Rare Cancers Initiative (IRCI)

The IRCI aims to develop more research into new treatments for people with rare cancers. They are focusing on certain types of cancer including:

  • anal cancer that has come back or spread
  • fibrolamellar hepatocellular cancer - a type of primary liver cancer
  • rare melanoma
  • penile cancer
  • salivary gland cancer
  • small bowel adenocarcinoma
  • sarcoma of the female sex organs, such as sarcoma of the womb
  • thymoma (cancer of the thymus gland)
  • rare brain tumours
  • merkel cell carcinoma (a type of skin cancer)
  • desmoplastic small round cell tumour (a type of sarcoma in adolescents and young adults)
  • anaplastic thyroid cancer

The IRCI designs trials that involve several countries, including the UK. This means that more people will be available to enter the trials. 

Research into genomics

We have a complete set of genes in almost every healthy cell in our body. This is called a genome. The genome is made of DNA (genetic code) and is the body’s instruction manual. It tells the body how to make, run and repair itself.

The study of the genome is becoming an important part of cancer research. This is because scientists link cancer to changes in the genome. Researchers are looking at cancer cells, as well as healthy cells in each person.

The Department of Health is running the 100,000 Genome project. At the moment, it is focusing on some rare diseases and some types of cancer. As well as common cancers, this includes rare cancers, such as sarcoma and brain tumours.

The researchers aim to study 50,000 genomes from 25,000 people with cancer. They will also collect information about their diagnosis and treatment.

Rare Cancers Europe

Rare Cancers Europe is a partnership between:

  • a variety of different research organisations
  • professional societies
  • charities
  • rare cancer networks

This initiative was set up to raise the awareness of rare cancers and their work includes:

  • improving the quality of clinical trials into rare cancers
  • increasing the number of trial available
  • the development of more successful treatments for rare cancers

Finding a trial

Finding a trial that is suitable for you might be more difficult if you have a rare cancer. Sometimes, there might not be a trial for you to take part in.

Ask your cancer specialist or specialist nurse about trials. They might be part of a research group if they have particular expertise in your type of cancer. 

Cancer Research UK has a searchable database of clinical trials in the UK. Choose from the list of cancer types, or type the name of your cancer into the search box.

The database also has information about closed trials and trial results.

Last reviewed: 
06 Sep 2019
  • Clinical trial designs for rare diseases: Studies developed and discussed by the International Rare Cancers Initiative
    J Bogaerts and others
    European Journal of Cancer (2015) 51, 271– 281

  • Genomics England 
    Accessed September 2019

  • International Rare Cancers Initiative (IRCI)
    Accessed September 2019

  • Rare cancers: Challenges & issues
    R Pillai and K Jayasree
    Indian Journal of Medical Research 2017 January; 145(1):17-27

  • Rare Cancers Europe
    Accessed September 2019

  • Rare Cancers Europe: joining forces to tackle a common problem
    R Schaefer
    Rare Tumors. 2012 April 12; 4(2): e24

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