Last month, we learned that one in two of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our lives. With that dramatic statistic in mind, this hour-long Panorama documentary was well-timed as it details how innovative treatments are being developed at the Institute of Cancer Research and trialled at the Royal Marsden (both websites have extensive details on the treatments and trials featured on the programme).
The programme was shot over a time period of two years and shows how the two institutions are working together to bring groundbreaking therapies from bench to bedside. The trials are testing immunotherapy, chosen by Science as breakthrough of the year back in 2013.
The treatments offer new prospects for people for whom the traditional three options (surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy) have not worked. Throughout the programme, patients with a range of cancers tell their stories: how they were told they only had months to live, and how that was (in some cases) years ago.
However, it is clear these are not wonder drugs. At the moment, the treatments only work for a small group of patients with very specific types of cancer, and very specific tumour mutations. And even then, the treatment does not always work in the long-term: it extends their lives but the tumours eventually evolve and develop resistance against these new drugs as well.
It's not all doom and gloom though. The patients themselves are positive: the drugs do not just buy them time, they give back quality of life as well. One of the main benefits of immunotherapies seems to be their relatively mild side effects compared to treatments like chemotherapy. While chemo targets all fast dividing cells, inevitably also affecting some healthy cells, immunotherapy is much more specific to cancer cells. Some inconveniences related to the treatments, such as having to avoid sunlight due to photosensitivity, may be offset by other benefits, like being able to take the drugs at home.
One important aspect appears to have been glossed over in this programme though: the price of the drugs. Last month, scientists from the University of York criticised the Cancer Drugs Fund, from which these drugs would be paid for, as being 'poor value' and argued it diverts funds from other patient services. As the therapies shown on the programme show their worth and move into daily practice, this will become an important factor.
Overall, the documentary shows a story of hope for a future where doctors and scientists will be able to target even more tumour types and anticipate drug resistance. It shows innovation happening right here in our NHS, without the need for the Medical Innovation, or Saatchi, Bill using trials that will provide evidence to benefit patients over years to come.