Highlights from the 2019 NCRI conference

The annual National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) conference is a highlight in the working year for our science team. This November, delegates converged on the Scottish Exhibition Campus in Glasgow for three days of lectures and discussions on the latest national and international cancer research.

This year, modifiable risk and the prevention of cancer featured prominently. The importance of this kind of work was highlighted from the opening address of the conference when Scotland’s deputy chief medical director, Gregor Smith, shared the alarming statistic that 1 in 4 Scottish deaths are caused by smoking. In one of the plenary lectures, Stephen Hursting spoke about the link between obesity and cancer. There is now convincing evidence that obesity is a risk factor for at least 12 cancer types, but less is known about why it is a risk and how we can reduce the impact of obesity on cancer. More research is needed in this area, but some early studies indicate that there may be some effects that persist even after intentional weight loss.

Early diagnosis research also featured highly on the programme. This is unsurprising when you consider that the combined survival for eight common cancers is 3 times higher if diagnosed at early compared to late stages. In her talk, Rebecca Fitzgerald encouraged us to think outside the box when it comes to early detection. Some cancers, for example oesophageal cancer, have a well-defined precancerous condition that has good treatment options. So, developing diagnostic biomarkers or screening tests that target this stage of illness may offer good prospects for treatment and improving survival. In a session on primary care, Kate Brain showcased research highlighting the barriers to early diagnosis, including fatalistic beliefs that are particularly prevalent in poor socioeconomic areas and mean that people are less likely to seek medical help. These kind of results are critical for the design of effective awareness interventions. Elsewhere, we heard from Paul Brennan about the promise of incorporating artificial intelligence algorithms as part of the suite of diagnostic tools available to help improve and clarify a brain tumour diagnosis.

As well as all of this, there were many sessions dedicated to the latest understanding of the fundamental biology of cancer. In the first lecture of the conference, Mariano Barbacid spoke about the importance of a particular class of genetic mutation. K-RAS mutations are present in around 25% of tumours, and particularly prevalent in lung and pancreatic cancers. Preclinical work indicates that targeting these mutations may offering a good prospect for the development of new treatments. Later, a fascinating plenary from Gillian Griffiths also highlighted the amazing power of cytotoxic t-cells. These immune cells are highly specialised and able to modify the amount of killing power they deliver according to the target. If we could harness the power of these natural killers in treatments, we could have access to 5 million cancer assassins in one teaspoon of blood!

Dovetailing with this basic discovery work were a number of talks showcasing potential improvements in cancer treatment. In one, Amato Giaccia spoke about the promise of combining radiotherapy with immunotherapy for the treatment of a number of different cancers. Radiation is an effective way to treat tumours, but can suppress the immune system. Early studies have shown that combining this type of therapy with treatments that help boost the immune response may help to delay tumour growth for longer periods, and many clinical studies are ongoing.

It was fantastic to attend the NCRI conference again this year, and to see how much ground-breaking work is happening in the UK and internationally. Meetings like this offer us a valuable opportunity to learn and keep informed about the latest scientific advances, so that we can responsibly invest the generous donations from our supporters in the very best cancer research across Wales.