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.

Season’s Greetings from the Research Councils!

By Claire Lane, RCUK Communications Officer

Brussel SproutsIt’s that time of year where we are all buying and wrapping presents whilst trudging round supermarkets finding the last turkey on the shelf. So, we at the Research Councils, thought we would give you a valid excuse to put the sticky tape to one side, stop chasing that elusive bag of sprouts, put the kettle on and take a well-earned break to celebrate with us, this year’s great stories.

In January, we released a study that showed the benefit of blocking brain inflammation in Alzheimer’s. It was originally thought that Alzheimer’s disease disturbs the brain’s immune response, but this latest study adds to evidence that swelling in the brain can advance the development of the disease. The findings suggest that by reducing this swelling the progression of the disease could be halted.

In March, we asked what is life like now, for the British generation born in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The finding let us about housing and education, to social mobility, health and religion. If we take religion the comparison between men and women opinions on whether they believe in God and life after death – 60 per cent of the women but only 35 per cent of the men believe in life after death. Similarly, more than half (54 per cent) of the men surveyed said they were atheists or agnostics, compared to only a third (34 per cent) of the women. Read more in  Thatcher’s children: the lives of Generation X.

In April, we wanted you to Walk Shakespeare’s London. When thinking of Shakespeare in London, we automatically think of the Globe Theatre, but the researchers also wanted us all to know about The Rose and other theatres from the period. Did you know that London’s first purpose built theatre is in Shoreditch known, simply as The Theatre, was built in 1576? The venue was taken down in 1598 and transported south of the Thames to form the basis of The Globe. Take a tour with their interactive map that brings Elizabethan London’s theatre land to life.

In May, the Natural Environment Research Council announced the name of their new Polar research Ship in honour of Sir David Attenborough Following a call for suggestions that sparked global interest, the new £200m state-of-the-art polar research ship is to be named after world-renowned naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough. It was selected as a name that captures the ship’s scientific mission and celebrates the broadcaster’s contribution to natural science

In July, we were also  solving a plant-based Rubik’s cube puzzle as researcher discovered a key “twist” in a Rubik’s cube-like plant puzzle. Piecing together the puzzle of how some compounds are made in plants could have enormous potential for developing new and improved therapies.

In October, we announced that the self-driving car made its public debut following their support, there was significant media interest as a self-driving car was trialled in public for the first time in the UK. Media including the BBC, ITV and Sky filmed the car as it made its way around a 1km-long route in trials organised in Milton Keynes by the Transport Systems Catapult (TSC).

In November, we announced pioneering laser technology that could boost the performance of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN to new levels of efficiency and therefore helping to unlock some of science’s greatest mysteries going back to the `Big Bang’. The laser technology changes the surface of metals and reduced the ‘electron cloud’.  This cloud of negative particles under certain conditions may degrade the performance of the primary proton beams that circulate in the accelerator, which is central to its core experiments. The technology could have widespread implications and applications in satellite and aerospace technologies.

We hope you enjoyed your break. Merry Christmas from all at the Research Councils.

We’re now a member of ORCID

By Sarah Townsend, Senior Research Funding Analyst, Research Councils UK (RCUK)

The Research Councils can today announce that we have become members of the Jisc UK ORCID consortium and our grants system will be ready to start capturing ORCID identifiers (ORCID iDs) early next year.

This news is the culmination of several years of engagement between the Research Councils and Jisc to understand how we can improve the flow of information across the higher education sector. In a joint RCUK and JISC report published earlier this year, we identified the ORCID iD as the leading standard for a researcher identifier. By becoming a member of ORCID through the Jisc UK ORCID Consortium, the Research Councils have benefited from reduced membership as well as access to enhanced technical resource. As a UK university, you can also take advantage of these benefits by joining the UK ORCID consortium today. By becoming a member of ORCID, you can integrate the ORCID iDs of your researchers into your institution’s research information system which in the longer term will make the flow of information to RCUK and other funders quick and easy.

As a researcher the ORCID iD is a bit like a fingerprint. It gives you a unique digital identity which can be kept throughout your career. This allows you to keep an on-going record of your scholarly activities even if you change research organisation or leave academia. Registration for an ORCID iD is fast and free. You only need to enter your name and email address and create a password. And there is no need to wait until the New Year. You can sign up for an ORCID iD instantly by clicking here – it only takes about 30 seconds to register and you will be joining the 1.8 million researchers worldwide who have already done it.

And that’s all that needs doing in the short term. In time, you can populate your ORCID record with your publications and other works, funding and employment history. This is made easy with tools to easily search and select stuff that is relevant to you. This is where the real benefits start to come as this is information that in future you will be able to use again and again in different systems.

And there are other more immediate benefits. We know that name ambiguity can be a real problem for a researcher, especially in making sure that your publications are properly attributed to you. An ORCID iD solves this helping to improve the chances that your work is discoverable.

These benefits will only be fully realised if we see widespread uptake of ORCID iDs across the research community and for ORCID iDs to be integrated within HEIs, funders and publishers systems. So if you are a researcher take the first step and register for an ORCID iD now. If you are a UK University become a member of the UK ORCID consortium.
RCUK has reviewed ORCIDs privacy policy and are assured that their principles are based on respect for the privacy of individual researchers. You have complete control! You can find out more by reading these FAQs.

My research prize visit to Diamond

By Phillippa Nightingale, prize winner of the National Science + Engineering Competition 2013

Phillippa Nightingale and Professor David Delphy

Phillippa Nightingale and Professor David Delphy

My journey started when I won my prize at the National Science + Engineering competition in March of this year. I was presented with my prize for the RCUK Best Use of Research award by Professor David Delpy, Chief Executive EPSRC.

My first choice of the research facilities to visit was the Diamond Light Source, and I was elated when I found out it had been accepted and I was going to have a tour of the prestigious £383 million facility. I couldn’t wait to start composing questions to ask the researchers and anyone else I would meet, whilst I continued to add to my project.

My mum and I visited the Harwell Campus in Didcot on 30 July. Our driver gave us some quick information about the other buildings on site including the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, the European Space Agency and the UK atomic energy authority, and then we reached Diamond. Our tour guide for the day was Laura Holland. At first she explained what happens at Diamond and how a synchrotron works. Then we went into the actual building where the electrons are set off from the electron gun through the booster synchrotron and around the storage ring, which has a 120cm thick ceiling of concrete over it. This is because there can be a high radiation level when the electrons go around the corners, as the storage ring is a polygon made of many different lines which extend into beam lines rather than a complete circle. She also showed me pieces of the magnets which keeps the electron central so they don’t lose energy.

I went to visit my first beam line which Professor Nick Terrill built. He specialises his research in polymer science, which is connected to my project of chewing gum. One of the primary things he does is heat and cool polymers to see how the structure changes because when some polymers melt, they crystallise. With the use of x-rays (as they are the correct length scale for the lamella structure), the structure change can be seen. He discussed his most current research with me about how polymer films are becoming very useful. In the future, if an organic photovoltaic polymer would work then that could be attached to windows and produce energy from the sun. The energy from the sun that touches the earth’s surface in an hour could power the world for a year, so if we could harness some of this energy then the need for fossil fuels will be less. This really excited me as I had no idea that anything like this was even possible. He has also built another beam line and this will be the 24th of the current 23 active beam lines.


Phillipa being shown around RAL

Phillipa being shown around RAL

I then went to see Professor Paul Steadman, who is the principal beam line scientist of I10. The Professor and his team look at magnetism, especially bolt magnetism, which occurs in natural materials as well as studying thin films. A reason why Paul and his team are so interested in magnetism is due to the hard drives in computers as they consist of magnetic particles which can be polarised in one of two directions giving a 1 or a 0, but to detect which way it’s pointing when they become smaller, you need an extremely sensitive magnetometer.

Considering that I have only studied basic magnetism at key stage three, I feel confident about the information I was told by Paul Steadman and by Nick Terrill about polymers. They both explained their work in a way, which at GCSE level, I was able to understand without it being patronising. Overall I felt that I learnt a lot from the experience, by spending time with the professors and the information I received will be extremely useful for when I have finished my GCSEs. They talked about their A levels and higher education, which I feel I can apply to my future. They also gave me other advice such as where research can take you, including the opportunities to go abroad and what the cutting edge research is at the moment at Diamond.

The trip has given me a wider idea of what being a researcher is and helped me to start thinking what I could do in the future. It was definitely worth visiting Diamond as I have never had an opportunity like this before.

My project: The Stickiness of chewing gum

I decided to investigate chewing gum mainly because I thought it was a large environmental problem in terms of looking unsightly. However, I later discovered it has many health benefits, such as aiding concentration and helping patients recover in hospital. I began to research what made chewing gum sticky and then I started what turned out to be a series of experiments. The first experiment I carried out, was to investigate how different surfaces affected how chewing could be removed, but there were too many variables and my results were not reproducible as they were a matter of opinion, so my second experiment focused on the idea that some removal substances such as white spirit could affect the amount of wipes needed to remove the gum but again this was more a matter of opinion than reliable results.


Phillipa learning about RAL

Phillipa learning about RAL

When I got through to the finals of the National Science + Engineering competition, the judges suggested that I used a pressure gauge; however my school didn’t have one. So instead I made 42 blocks and used a Newton metre to measure the force needed to remove the chewing gum that had been placed in between the blocks over a week, in an effort to see how time affects the stickiness of chewing gum. Whilst carrying out experiments, I started to research the historical, commercial and unusual facts related to chewing gum, such as the London-based, gum artist Ben Wilson and the identification that a Mayan farmer has a specific type of tree that produces a sap which when exposed to rainwater for a month begins to disintegrate. I believe that a synthetic copy of this biodegradable sap could be made to stop the millions of pounds being wasted on the clean-up of chewing gum and therefore allow Councils to spend money on much needed beneficial services.

Leverage from public funding of science and research

By Dr Sarah Main

A year ago, in the middle of the London 2012 Olympic Games, I walked in to the peculiarly empty offices of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). Having taken its commitment to halve the number of civil servants working from central London seriously, most BIS staff were operating from off-site locations. I soon came to realise that securing a desk in the heart of the Knowledge and Innovation Group at BIS was not normally so easy.

For nine months, I was part of a team that was gathering evidence on the impact of public investment in science and research. The scope of the team’s work included efficiencies in higher education, the dual funding model, the impact of science and research on local economies and, the strand on which I worked, leverage. The report, Leverage from public funding of science and research, published on the RCUK website, examines how public funding of science and research leverages additional investment from industry, charity and overseas.

We worked from within the Innovation Directorate with close links to the Research Funding Unit and had access to input and expertise from across the science and research functions of BIS and Whitehall: the Government Office for Science, Office of Life Sciences, Higher and Further Education, UKTI, International Knowledge and Innovation and many more.

At times, the work could feel rather abstract: collating and commissioning data to answer questions that had not yet been asked for a ‘review’ that had not yet been called.

But I believe the approach was entirely vindicated by the availability of well-researched and compiled evidence with which to support key messages at short notice.

It will not surprise you to learn that when Treasury or Ministers ask challenging questions, the response time is measured in days or hours, not weeks. And certainly not in the months it takes to thoroughly research some of these difficult questions. When the pressure is on, delivering strong messages backed up by substantive evidence has real impact.

For the conclusions on leverage, I refer you to the report. For those short of time, I suggest the contents page for the scope of the report (page 2) and the four page executive summary. I also commend to you my colleague Sarah Jackson’s report on efficiencies in higher education.

I will leave you with my top tips for dealing with enquiries from officials in Knowledge and Innovation Group at BIS.

  • BIS is complex. The civil service even more so. Ask questions until you understand the structure and reporting lines in to which you are feeding information
  • Forgive them the time pressure. It is applied to them from many directions and usually from high above.
  • Keep it short and to the point. Officials will appreciate it if they don’t have to spend time summarising responses.
  • Understand the context of the question. An enquiry you receive often forms only one element of a multi-stranded response. If your response fits the broader context it is more likely to be useful and be used. Pitching at the national, economic and cross-discipline level is probably not far off.
  • Perhaps the best kept secret: these officials are our champions in government. Be friendly – they are on our side!

Dr Sarah Main is now Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering. She was previously seconded to BIS from the Medical Research Council (MRC). 

Supporting research data management costs through grant funding

By Ben Ryan, Senior Manager, Research Outcomes, EPSRC

Making research data available to our stakeholders is very important to the Research Councils and, to ensure we have a consistent approach, there is a set of common principles, published by RCUK, which provides an overarching framework for individual Research Councils’ policies on data policy.

One of these principles states that it is “appropriate to use public funds to support the management and sharing of publicly-funded research data”. Research organisations are responsible for making sure there are enough resources allocated to research data management, for example from quality-related research funding or from research grants.

To help clarify how research grant funding can be used to help cover the costs involved, the JISC Research Data Managers Forum, with the Digital Curation Centre, organised a meeting in April this year, with representatives from the Research Councils and the Wellcome Trust. RCUK have published responses to questions raised at the event.

In practice, this reiterates existing guidance on how research grants may be spent – all costs associated with research data management are eligible expenditure of research grant funds, but there are couple of ‘lines in the sand’ that are emphasised, and are worth repeating here:

  • no expenditure can be ‘double funded’ (a service that is centrally supported by the indirect costs paid on all research grants cannot then also be included as a direct cost on a grant)
  • all directly incurred expenditure of a grant must incurred before the end date of the grant. 

RCUK hopes the written responses will dispel any misconceptions and provide reassurance that research grant funding from the Research Councils may be used to help with any aspect of the cost of research data management.

New RCUK study on the impact of doctoral training

By Dr Iain Cameron, Head of RCUK Research Careers and Diversity.

There are existing studies that look at the career pathways and impact of doctoral training – after six months from graduating and then after three years. But what difference do PhD graduates make in the longer term?

As part of a larger of programme of longitudinal tracking of doctoral graduates, RCUK has launched a new study, with the UK funding councils, to examine the economic impact of doctoral training with PhD graduates from 2004-05. We want to gain a deeper and more evidence-based understanding of their impact and how their skills contribute to innovation and the competitiveness of the UK. The study is being carried out by the research consultancy CFE in partnership with the Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU) and Sheffield University.

As well as examining their impact to the economy and in the workplace, we will be looking at the vibrancy of the research base and the contribution of doctoral graduates across the economy, not just in academic fields. We want to find out the range and scope of career destinations and how their careers are developing, which will help to inform guidance for researchers on the career choices available to them.

We know that, logistically, this is going to be challenging. Getting back in touch with people after a number of years is not straightforward. People move, change jobs, change emails, change phone numbers. Unusual names might pop up in searches but while we might find lots of people called Jane Smith, knowing which the right one is, is much harder.

To identify typical career pathways and routes for innovation for different subjects or groups of people, we need enough replies to be confident their paths really are representative. It’s not going to be easy and enough replies to do even broad subject groupings may be ambitious, so we may also include graduates from 2003-04 and 2005-06.

A first stage is inviting anyone who completed their doctorate between 2003 and 2006 to get in touch with CFE so we can work out whether we will be able to reach enough people for a survey to work. We need the help of supervisors, research centres, alumni offices and other networks of doctoral graduates to help us to identify and make contact with graduates. Providing we have enough contact information, the research will begin with a short online survey and, for some, more in-depth interviews.

We are confident that if we can reach doctoral graduates, they will be pretty good at responding and many will feel compelled to be involved for the ‘greater good’. By telling us about what they doing, it will provide more evidence that is vital to inform decisions on future investment in doctoral training.

The other big challenge is, of course, about what we’ll ask them. There are reasonably established methods for looking at the impact of research outcomes. When it comes to individual impacts and careers, there are quite a few career stories, case studies and in-depth work. For example, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) work on the contribution of social science to government policy is at the cutting edge of such comprehensive work. We know there is a large survey of doctoral graduates in Germany. There are also studies around salaries, but we wish to look beyond private returns to establish whether the UK economy and society benefits from investments in doctoral research. This is where we don’t yet have established methods and indicators, but if we want evidence-based decision-making, we have to continue to work on it.

We expect to publish the findings of the study by the end of 2013 and this will develop a sustainable research tool that could be used again to help fill gaps in evidence. The data will be made available to others through the UK Data Archive.

We would like to encourage graduates, and anyone who can put us in touch with the right doctoral graduates, to get in touch. Further information is available at