National database and technological advances boost fight against cancer

World’s largest cancer database will help move towards tailor-made treatments using latest technology

In the war against cancer, technology is proving a formidable weapon. According to Cancer Research UK, survival rates have doubled within the past four decades. Now, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, treatments are increasingly tailor-made to target individual cancers according to key mutations that drive them.

To kickstart this new era of ‘personalised medicine’, Public Health England is launching the world’s largest database of cancer patients. It will collate all available data on every one of the 350,000 new tumours detected in the country each year. Software that enables computers to predict an individual’s response to treatment based on sub-types of cancer could help doctors customise therapy.

Bladder cancers are among those that can usually be treated effectively if diagnosed early. But a lack of reliable biomarkers means diagnosis can be a lengthy process.

British scientists have now created a device that can sniff out cancer cells from a sample of urine in just 30 minutes. Known as ‘Odoreader’, the gadget uses an inbuilt sensor to analyse urine gases. In trials, it has achieved 100% accuracy.

Scientists have also used smell to detect malignant tissue during surgery. The ‘intelligent’ knife, or Rapid Evaporative Ionization Mass Spectrometry (REIMS), is a modified surgical tool that uses heat to cut through tissue. Smoke is sucked into a high-tech ‘nose’ (spectrometer) that can distinguish between cancerous and normal cells. Results are relayed to surgeons within seconds.

Dr Zoltan Takats, who invented the system at Imperial College London, said: “We believe it has the potential to reduce tumour recurrence rates and enable more patients to survive.” His colleague Professor Jeremy Nicholson, head of the department of surgery and cancer, described REIMS as part of today’s “precision medicine.”

In another development, researchers at the University of Oxford believe they have engineered molecular ‘superglue’ that could detect cancer cells from blood samples rather than biopsies and help show when the disease is at risk of spreading.