Research on cancer in the UK: an overview


Sunday 4 February 2018 marks the 18th World Cancer Day, a Union for International Cancer Control campaign which explores how everyone – as a collective or as individuals – can do their part to reduce the global burden of cancer.

The UK is at the cutting edge of cancer research with hundreds of pieces of research and new innovations each year, collectively funded by the taxpayer through the research councils and Innovate UK.

This work takes us from biological understanding and applying new medical treatment, to looking at how we live our lives and cancers’ the impact on society. This vast, multi-discipline approach ensures the UK is at the forefront of efforts to tackle cancer head-on.

Helping to prevent cancers, testing, screening, diagnosis and societal causations
Fundamental to modern cancer research is trying to prevent the cancer from developing and growing. This research is often focussed on how we live our lives and what this can do to potentially prevent a cancer from arriving. Drinking alcohol for example, was recently shown in a new study by the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, to damage DNA – which could increase cancer risk.

To prevent cancer and to look at new ways of treatment also requires learning about its mechanics. Research carried out at the University of East Anglia uncovered key processes in the healthy development of cells which line the human gut, furthering our understanding about the development of cancer.

Treatment can also be improved via early diagnosis, and screening is vital to catch the disease before it spreads. Using the latest in technology is key in screening. Experts at the University of Leicester  have adapted gamma-ray technology originally used for astronomy in order to improve the detection and treatment of cancer, whilst the EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training is helping train the experts of the future with its PhD Medical Imaging.

Beyond screening, advancements in testing are also ongoing thanks to computer simulations. A new study carried out at Queen Mary University of London, using the computer simulations, suggests that women vaccinated against the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) may only require three cervical screens in their lifetime, as opposed to the current 12.
Whilst scientists at the University of Cambridge MRC Cancer Unit have discovered that gullet cancer can be spotted eight years earlier thanks to a new gene test.


Treatment for cancers are constantly improving thanks to UK research. This focuses on improving drugs already known to work, to looking for completely new ways to deal with the disease.

In 2017, researchers at the University of Edinburgh discovered new properties of gold which could be utilised to improve the effectiveness of cancer medication and reduce its harmful effects. Whilst research led by the John Innes Centre revealed how a plant used in traditional Chinese medicine produces compounds which may help too.

A pioneering treatment for multiple myeloma, the second most common blood cancer, has recently reached its clinical stage. Autolus has developed a chimeric antigen receptor T-cell therapy which has been developed to genetically engineer a patient’s own immune cells to improve their cancer-fighting properties and then reinfusing these cells back into their bloodstream.

Another new drug will become available for patients with bowel cancer thanks to a scientific discovery the CRUK/MRC Oxford Institute for Radiation Oncology, showing that cancer cells with a mutated SETD2 gene were killed by an experimental drug.

Whilst this search is vital, computational biologists at the Earlham Institute and Institute of Food Research have found that when looking for new drugs, the huge potential of examining the neighbours of already existing drugs. The experts have looked at the complex networks of interacting proteins that drive cancer formation, and found that targeting the neighbours of cancer-causing proteins may be just as effective as focussing on the cancer proteins themselves.

The body also has information to learn from when it comes to cancer treatment. Researchers at the National Cancer Institute, in the USA, and the Babraham Institute, have discovered how a mineral ion leaked from tumour tissue as it dies acts to stop the work of anti-tumour immune cells. This discovery provides a new approach in the development of treatments to engage the immune system in the fight against cancer.

Living with, and after, cancer

Research is ongoing to see how life can be improved during cancer treatment. A new type of monitoring technology developed by Entia has shown how just a finger prick can carry out a blood test count that helps chemotherapy patients to manage their treatment. For those living with conditions such as bowel cancer, and other conditions which affect going to the toilet, life has been improved following research at the Royal College of Art Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design which has led to the development of a new website which maps over 10,000 public toilets.

Following cancer or a serious illness, it is important to understand how life changes too. This is at the heart of much research. For example, insight from the University of York has found women are almost twice more likely than men to leave a job after recovering from an acute health shock such as cancer. An ongoing four-year seminar series involving cross discipline experts is also tackling these issues by tracking the perspectives on the working lives of those with cancer, stretching from psychosocial, organisational and economic issues.

For those living with cancer it can be beneficial to learn of successful treatments. Scientists at the Centre for Reproductive Health in the University of Edinburgh developed a new technique for restoring ovarian function in 2016. This technique led to the first UK woman giving birth following a transplant of her frozen ovarnjy tissue.

Committing to higher education and future research

Thanks to taxpayers’ funding the research councils’ and Innovate UK’s massive portfolio stretches into funding some of the world’s leading experts and centres to look at the latest research. This ranges from prevention methods, new tests, screens and ways to improve diagnosis, to discovering state-of-the-art treatments and help those actually living with cancer across the world.

Higher education institutes also directly benefit from this support, with investment from Research England (which currently sits as part of HEFCE) aiding the latest research, developing strategic partnerships between organisations and enabling connections between the research base to the economy through its UK Research Partnership Investment Fund (UKRPIF).

Originally set up in 2012, the fund supports large-scale projects that attract significant private investment. The Government has allocated £900 million to UKRPIF from 2012 up to 2021. So far, £680 million has been allocated to 43 projects across the UK in five rounds of the competition running between 2014-20, attracting £1.65 billion of investment from business and charities.