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Wales Cancer Research Centre,
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University Hospital of Wales,
Cardiff, CF14 4XN
1 Aug

School in lockdown: Q and A with our researchers

Schools in lockdown

We invited school pupils aged 11 - 14 to ask researchers in Wales a few questions. The researchers above address their questions here.

With cancer being a change in DNA, how far are we from a cure that changes the DNA to remove cancer?

Manisha: Around 30 years ago a genetic engineering tool called CRISPR was developed, which can be used to modify sections of DNA i.e. remove unwanted DNA . This technology seems very promising in being able to help treat diseases such as cancer, but at the minute tools like CRISPR are only being used to study cancer in the lab. Scientists are still not sure on the implications this could have in a human and the dangers it may pose further down the line. However more and more research is being done around it, so perhaps in a few years we may be better informed.

How many cancers are caused by viruses?

Emma: It is estimated that 12-20 percent of all cancers may be attributed to viruses according to the "American Society for Microbiology 2019" 

What is cancer?

Emma: Cancer is a caused when cells in a certain area of the body grow uncontrollably and mutate. Cells can interfere with healthy tissue and organs causing them to not work properly.

Will there ever be a cure for cancer?

Silvia: It is difficult to say whether there will ever be a cure that will eradicate cancer once and for all but the introduction of personalised therapies that are specific to each cancer patient will definitely bring much more benefit and hope.

What causes cancer?

Emma: Cancer is caused by damage to genes by a cancer causing substance called carcinogen.

Jo: Cancer can be caused by genetic and environmental influences. As the cells in the body age they accumulate mutations and other changes. You can also inherit some mutations. If these are not corrected by the body's natural detection systems cancer can develop.

How do you get cancer?

Silvia: The most common causes of cancer include smoking, exposure to sun and UV, diet, obesity, alcohol, infections or hereditary factors.

What happens to the body when it has cancer?

Emma: Changes occur to the body's normal processes or unexplained symptoms such as an unusual lump, unexplained bleeding/ bruising or changes to bowel or urinary habits.

Jo: As cancer cells divide and expand they can prevent the function of the surrounding normal tissues as healthy cells are pushed out and the body's immune system can be altered. Many cancers take years to develop or show noticeable symptoms which can include changes to weight/appetite, noticeable lumps or pain and tiredness. Early screening of people most likely to develop cancers helps to detect these changes quickly.

How many types of cancer are there?

Manisha: As a result of our bodies containing numerous different cells and organs, there are over 200 different types of cancer.

Can any foods give you cancer?

Emma: Processed foods that are high in sugar and low in fibre are linked to a higher cancer risk.

What is the most common type of cancer?

Emma: The two most common causes of cancer as classified by the World Health Organisation are Breast -2.09 million cases and Lung Cancer 2.09 million cases.

Manisha: The most common cancer type within a population will vary depending on demographics (age, gender, income, lifestyle etc.) as these are all influencing factors. In the UK, the most common cancer type in men is prostate cancer and in women, it is breast cancer.

What are the different stages of cancer?

Manisha: Cancer stages refer to where in the body the cancer is situated, its size and its ability to spread. With regards to prostate cancer, stage 1 represents slow growing cancer that is confined to the prostate only. Stage 2 reveals the tumour is growing and getting bigger, although is still located only within the prostate. Stage 3 would show that the tumour has now spread from the prostate into nearby tissue and stage 4 would show prostate tumours spread even further, examples of this could include tumour growth now in the lungs or in the bones.

Why does treatment make you go bald?

Emma: Some chemotherapy attacks rapidly dividing cells, both good and bad, and hair roots can be attacked during treatment thus causing hair to fall out.

How did you get into your job?

Mala: I was a librarian working in a cancer centre library, where I was helping doctors, nurses and others working there to find information to help them in their work. When my job there came to an end, I was asked if I wanted to carry out systematic reviews, which involves finding, checking, and combining all available information on different topics.

Emma: I was a nurse working on a chemotherapy unit and enjoyed learning about the drugs that I gave. I was also interested in learning new ideas about how drugs can effect patients. A research nurse post became avalilable within my speciality which I applied for and was successful.

Silvia: I am a pharmacist and I have always been intrigued in studying drugs and strategies to prevent and cure cancer. Following an Erasmus placement abroad where I had a chance to work on a breast cancer research project, I realised that cancer research was what I am passionate about and I was lucky to be offered a PhD in the same lab where I did my Erasmus placement.

Manisha: I have always been interested in biology, especially the human body and how it works. I decided to study genetics at Swansea University, where I found cancer genetics to be hugely fascinating. I wanted to then apply my knowledge and help contribute to the world of science, so I applied for a PhD position looking into prostate cancer. I am almost finished with my studies and I hope that what I have found through my research can help many men in the future.

Jo: I developed a keen interest in how the processes of the body work at A-level and went on to study Biochemistry at Cardiff University. During my degree I worked on a project that looked at the genes involved in cell death and how cancer cells avoided this process - I enjoyed it so much I went on to take a Cancer Genetics PhD in the same group. I wanted to work closely with patients developing new treatments for clinical trials and joined the Cardiff Experimental Cancer Research Centre where I now lead the laboratory studies of new treatments for acute leukaemias.