6 of the biggest good news cancer stories of 2021

Cancer

2021 may not have been the year anyone expected, with COVID-19 still making its presence known in our lives and around the world.

But a lot of progress has still been made. From promising new cancer drugs to trialling a cancer blood test, here are some of the top good news stories from the year.

Tissue from a person with high grade serous ovarian cancer. This image was taken using a powerful microscope and shows red blood cells stained in red, DNA in blue and centrosomes in

Ovarian cancer cells as seen under a powerful microscope. Credit: Carolin Sauer.

A ray of hope in the global effort to eradicate cervical cancer

This year, a study we funded showed for the first time that the UK human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine programme is able to prevent cervical cancer and will save lives.

The vaccine was shown to dramatically reduce cervical cancer rates by almost 90% in women in their 20s who were offered it at age 12 to 13.

As the fourth most common cancer in women globally, and one that’s highly preventable, the WHO announced in 2020 an ambitious plan to create a ‘cervical cancer-free future’.

India is on its way to implementing their own HPV vaccination programme as part of this ambition, rising to the challenge of vaccinating the over 74 million girls in the country who would be eligible.

We discussed the challenges India faces in achieving this goal in an article we published in November, and spoke to Dr Ishu Kataria, a public health researcher working with the UN and WHO, about her work on this life-saving project on our podcast.

Recognising the progress we’ve made against cancer in children in young people

Amarvir (pictured with his dad Jag) was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in 2010. He is now 17 years old.

Amarvir (pictured with his dad Jag) was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia in 2010. He is now 17 years old.

Cancer in children and young people is much rarer than cancer in adults and more than 8 in 10 survive their cancer for 10 years or more.

But survival for children and young people hasn’t always been this high – in the 1970s, just over a third of children diagnosed with cancer in Great Britain survived for 10 years or more.

If mortality rates for children and young people with cancer in the UK had stayed the same as their peak in the early 1970s, almost 30,000 more children and young people would have died from cancer, according to new estimates made this year.

These deaths have been avoided thanks in part to the progress we’ve made in diagnosing and treating these cancers through research.

But researchers aren’t stopping there. More work still needs to be done to improve survival in cancers that haven’t progressed as much and to improve the long-term side effects that can result from treatment.

A blood test that has the potential to detect over 50 kinds of cancer is now being trialled in the NHS in England.

The Galleri blood test, developed by the company GRAIL, aims to detect cancers earlier by looking for abnormal DNA shed from cancer cells into the blood.

There has been a lot of excitement about the Galleri test, and the results from studies into the test have so far been promising. However, it will take time to know if Galleri can make a difference and how it should best be used.

It’s early days for the GRAIL blood test, but it’s exciting to see this research happening and we look forward to seeing more tests of promise being taken through to trials, pilots and implementation, to drive much-needed benefit for patients.

In September, a first-of-its-kind cancer drug to treat a type of lung cancer was approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

Described by our chief clinician, Professor Charles Swanton, as “one of the most exciting breakthroughs in lung cancer in 20 years,” the ground-breaking decision follows a 40-year hunt for a drug that can tackle a mutation long considered to be ‘undruggable’.

The drug, sotorasib (Lumykras), is now available on the NHS in England for eligible lung cancer patients following a national access agreement reached with the manufacturer.

But sotorasib was just one of many drugs approved for the NHS this year.

In September this year, researchers presented data described as ‘phenomenal’ that showed the power of a targeted drug to slow breast cancer growth.

The breakthrough drug works by delivering high concentrations of chemotherapy directly to cancer cells that have a particular protein (HER2) on their surface. It’s been trialled for women with advanced HER2-positive breast cancer.

Patients taking the drug – trastuzumab deruxecan – were 72% less likely to see their cancer grow significantly or to die than those taking an existing breast cancer treatment.

“This exciting work is likely to change clinical practice and offer real benefits for patients with HER2-positive breast cancer,” commented Professor Charles Swanton, our chief clinician.

10 years ago, a team of our investigators published the results of a clinical trial that changed the way biliary tract cancer is treated.

The Advanced Biliary tract Cancer (ABC)-02 trial was the biggest trial of its kind, showing an improvement in survival from a new combination of drugs – gemcitabine and cisplatin, compared to gemcitabine on its own.

Over a decade later, a follow up study, ABC-06, has pushed research even further by searching for chemotherapy options for people with advanced biliary tract cancer who are no longer benefitting from this initial treatment.

And once again, the results from the latest trial have led to a change in practice, providing a new, widely accepted standard of care for patients with advanced biliary tract cancer.

Thank you for all your generous donations throughout 2021 that made this brilliant work possible. These are just a few of the many stories of progress that have come out this year, with more sure to come in 2022.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Cancer Research UK.

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