Preventing cancer: an interview with Dr Fiona Reddington

Dr. Fiona ReddingtonTHOUGHT LEADERS SERIES...insight from the world’s leading experts

How many cancer cases are thought to be preventable through lifestyle changes?

It’s estimated that more than four in 10 cancer cases could be prevented by lifestyle changes, such as not smoking, keeping a healthy body weight, cutting back on alcohol, eating a healthy diet, keeping active and staying safe in the sun (http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-info/cancerstats/causes/).

Making these changes doesn’t guarantee that you won't get cancer but it reduces your risk of getting it. Cancer often has more than one known cause and sometimes the exact cause is not known but making these changes can help stack the odds in your favour.

How complete is our current understanding of cancer prevention and what further research is needed?

Lots of questions remain to be answered in cancer prevention but in reality a lot of the risk factors we know about, such as not getting enough exercise or eating an unhealthy diet, are risk factors for a range of diseases – not just cancer.

I think a shift in thinking away from prevention of a single disease is a really important step. There is still a lot of interest in the role of drugs such as aspirin in prevention but, for me, the really fascinating area is the human behaviour aspect.

It can be really difficult for people to make healthy lifestyle choices and adopt behaviours that stack the odds in their favour and we need to understand how best to support people in doing this via more research, more effective public health messaging and turning research findings into policy and interventions.

Please can you outline the new £6 million initiative being led by Cancer Research UK to study better ways to prevent cancer?

Cancer Research UK has launched an initiative to support cutting-edge research into lifestyle and behavioural changes that can prevent cancer, for which half the funding has been provided by the BUPA Foundation. The initiative will provide support for two new funding streams:

  • A three year fellowship award to fund outstanding post-doctoral scientists and health care professionals to research behavioural changes that can prevent people getting cancer.
  • A 12 month innovation award to fund pilot projects from collaborative teams that will be brought together via innovation workshops – called ‘sandpit events’.

The initiative will also support a new Policy Research Centre within Cancer Research UK which will provide a research facility to gather the evidence needed to make policy changes and put good research practise into action. More information can be found at http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/funding-for-researchers/how-we-deliver-research/our-research-partnerships/bupa-foundation-cancer-prevention-initiative.

What impact do you think this initiative will have?

In the short term, I hope to see growth in the critical mass of researchers working in the area of cancer prevention. I also hope that we can help play a role in bringing together researchers from different disciplines and providing appropriate funding routes for them to apply to with their ideas.

The fellowships will lead to the establishment of a cohort of outstanding researchers in the area of prevention who will hopefully go on to be leaders in this field and drive forward exciting research programmes.

In the medium to long term the aim is to fund research that will inform policy and lead to interventions and approaches that have the ability to really impact upon cancer prevention and ultimately save lives.

How important are collaborations across disciplines in the fight against cancer?

Collaborative working is absolutely critical in making progress in the fight against cancer. We have moved from a focus on understanding lots of detail about a single thing to a more integrative approach where we are trying to piece information together in context. This requires knowledge and approaches that span disciplines from physical, social, behavioural and biological sciences alongside mathematicians, statisticians and beyond.

It is also really important to involve patients and public in research early on when studies are being designed so that their views can be incorporated into proposals. We are trying to encourage this multidisciplinary approach through our sandpit events and have also recently launched a new funding scheme aimed at promoting collaboration between biological researchers and engineers/physical scientists and another scheme looking at attracting immunologists into cancer research.

Please can you outline the inaugural 'Sandpit' event that took place in Oxford recently? What were the main aims and outcomes of this event?

The first sandpit workshop was held in July 2014 in Oxford. It brought together a diverse mix of scientists, health professionals, policy makers and community groups to discuss ideas of how to tackle cancer prevention in hard to reach groups.

People came together to develop and pitch ideas for research proposals and it was really exciting to see ideas develop over the three days and how people from different disciplines brought different perspectives and views to the discussion.

Eight new pilot projects were funded to work up their ideas and hopefully these will develop into larger research projects in the future. More sandpit events are planned with the next one planned for February 2015.

What do you think the future holds for cancer prevention science and how do Cancer Research UK hope to add to this?

For me the shift towards prevention of chronic diseases rather than individual diseases, will be fundamental to really making progress.

People want to adopt lifestyles and behaviours which will benefit their health overall especially as more of us are living longer. It can be overwhelming trying to keep up with the latest health advice and we need to do more research about how we can effectively communicate the outputs of research in a way that is meaningful and relevant. 

People lead increasingly busy lives and need high quality, easy to understand information communicated in a way that suits them as an individual, such as social media.

Understanding risk, and what you can do to minimise your risk of ill health, is a complex area and undoubtedly needs further research. There is a real opportunity for different disciplines to come together to work on some of these challenges across disease areas which has the potential to be transformative.

The other really exciting thing on the horizon is the advent of e-health technology and big data which has the power to not only provide incredibly rich data on a scale never seen before but also to involve participants in research studies and healthcare in novel ways.

Do you think it will one day be possible to prevent most or all cancers?

We know that nearly half of all cancers could be prevented through adopting a healthier lifestyle so incredible progress could be made now via this route alone. However, some cancers are genetically inherited or we don’t yet understand why they occur so it will be equally important to recognise potential signs and symptoms of cancer and try and diagnose these as early as possible.

Where can readers find more information?

Readers can find more information about the Cancer Research UK/Bupa Foundation Cancer Prevention Initiative at http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/funding-for-researchers/how-we-deliver-research/our-research-partnerships/bupa-foundation-cancer-prevention-initiative.

For information about cancer prevention more generally there is information available on the Cancer Research UK website at http://www.cancerresearchuk.org/cancer-help/about-cancer/causes-symptoms/preventing-cancer.

About Fiona Reddington

Dr Fiona Reddington is Head of Clinical and Population Research Funding at Cancer Research UK.

Fiona obtained her BSc (Pharmacology) at University College Dublin and her PhD (Neurophysiology) from Kings College London (UMDS). From there, Fiona joined the NHS as a project manager and went on to manage a Cancer Centre at University College London.

Management roles at a national cancer network and the National Cancer Research Institute Informatics Initiative followed where Fiona was part of the team to win the inaugural Times Higher Research project of the Year award.

Fiona joined Cancer Research UK in 2008. She has responsibility for the Cancer Research UK  research portfolio in the areas of clinical trials, population research, prevention and early diagnosis.

She represents the charity on matters relating to data sharing and the management boards of a number of external initiatives such as the National Prevention Research Initiative and UKCRC Public Health Centres of Excellence.

April Cashin-Garbutt

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April Cashin-Garbutt

April graduated with a first-class honours degree in Natural Sciences from Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. During her time as Editor-in-Chief, News-Medical (2012-2017), she kickstarted the content production process and helped to grow the website readership to over 60 million visitors per year. Through interviewing global thought leaders in medicine and life sciences, including Nobel laureates, April developed a passion for neuroscience and now works at the Sainsbury Wellcome Centre for Neural Circuits and Behaviour, located within UCL.

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