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From test-tube to tabloid: communicating cancer research

Posted Feb 04 2010 12:00am

Research into cancer changes lives. But turning a discovery made in the lab into something that can benefit patients is a long and sometimes difficult process.

While some problems in research are technical, others centre on communication. And it’s not only when cancer hits the headlines that communication is important. As research changes our understanding of cancer, communication between scientists, doctors, policymakers and the public about the implications of new discoveries is absolutely vital.

Last month a conference at the British Library explored some of the problems in communicating cancer research, and ways to prevent the key messages from being ‘lost in translation’. Read on to find out about some of the ideas that came up, and you can also hear from the speakers in this video: 

The conference was organised by the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) Informatics Initiative, in partnership with the British Library. Professor Sir Ken Calman, chair of the NCRI, started the day with a focus on patients and the public, saying that we all want to be sure that changes in scientists’ thinking about cancer are acted on quickly and effectively.

From basic science to new treatments
A key concern at the conference was the need for more effective translational research in the UK – the process of taking a new idea from the lab all the way to clinical trials.

As we’ve blogged about recently, Cancer Research UK is funding 19 Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres across the UK that are helping to boost translational research and give more patients access to cutting-edge treatments. The ECMCs are jointly funded by Cancer Research UK and the NHS, and demonstrate how close cooperation between researchers and doctors can provide real benefits for patients.

Another hot topic was the increasing cost of research and new cancer drugs. Professor David Cameron (no relation!), director of the National Cancer Research Network, suggested that the economics of a new treatment should be considered earlier in the development process. Taking this approach could perhaps help to bring down the costs of new drugs – and the clinical trials needed to test them.

Clinical trials are an essential part of the process of bringing new treatments to patients. Professor John Gribben, director of the Centre for Experimental Cancer Medicine at Barts Hospital in London, said that better communication was needed to raise awareness of this – more patients should be able to find out about clinical trials as soon as they’re diagnosed with cancer. Cancer Research UK’s unique clinical trials database has led the way by making information about trials accessible to everyone.

The tricky issue of how to make better use of information about patients was also discussed. New technology from the NHS should make it easier for researchers to keep track of patients in the future, which could help us to learn more about the long-term effects of cancer treatment from the ever-growing numbers of cancer survivors in the UK.

Cancer in the media
As a new treatment makes the long journey from the lab to being approved for use in patients, it has  another hurdle to overcome – the media.

Dr Ben Goldacre, whose Bad Science blog and Guardian column have helped to expose many examples of poor science coverage, examined how cancer research is reported.

Dr Goldacre pointed out that the media can and do change the public’s health behaviour. The number of women attending cervical screening shot up after news of Jade Goody’s cervical cancer diagnosis, and Kylie Minogue’s diagnosis of breast cancer had a similar effect on the number of women asking for mammograms.

But is the power of the media put to good use? Dr Goldacre was concerned that new treatments are often badly reported – a study of press coverage of the cancer drug Herceptin found that only 14 per cent of articles had any mention of side effects. This kind of reporting could give patients a biased view of how much benefit they might get from a new treatment.

Dr Goldacre also said he thought the media did not give the best coverage to the strongest evidence. He gave the example of risk factors and cancer – every day there’s a new story claiming a particular food or activity can reduce or increase the risk of cancer, often with little evidence to back it up. Worryingly, a survey by the World Cancer Research Fund  recently found that 52 per cent of respondents thought that ‘scientists are always changing their minds’ about the things that cause or prevent cancer – despite the fact that advice on reducing the risk of cancer hasn’t changed in recent years.

Dr Goldacre’s message was that researchers and organisations communicating about cancer shouldn’t rely on the media to provide the public with evidence-based information. But he pointed out that many people are eager to find the real story behind the cancer headlines, making organisations’ websites – like ours –  a vital resource.

Indeed, the fact that you’re reading this blog right now is one example of how communication about cancer research is changing. Cancer Research UK not only funds research but also provides reliable information about cancer research for everyone – and we hope that our work will help to ensure that cancer research doesn’t get ‘lost in translation’.

Nell Barrie

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