Linking dinosaur tumours and proton beams, a major new exhibition shows the strides scientists have made as they unravel the complexities of cancer – and explores what the future holds
Written by David Cox for Guardian Labs
In 1983, Roger Highfield began his career in journalism reporting for a doctors’ magazine on the discovery that human papillomavirus (HPV) was linked to cervical cancer. At the time, cancer was such a feared disease that merely discussing the subject was something of a taboo.
“Back then, people didn’t want to talk about cancer because it was so hopeless,” remembers Highfield, now science director of the Science Museum Group (SMG). “Don’t get me wrong, it’s still tough and gruelling for people, but the whole landscape has been transformed into one that’s much more hopeful.”
Nearly four decades on, we now know that giving adolescent girls the HPV jab can reduce cases of cervical cancer by 90%, according to a new study in the Lancet, demonstrating that vaccination has the potential to almost eliminate the disease.
The story of HPV, its link to cancer, and how vaccines have helped scientists fight back, is one of many inspirational stories covered in the SMG’s new exhibition Cancer Revolution: Science, innovation and hope, which launched at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester on 22 October, and has now moved to the Science Museum in London, opening on the 25th of May 2022.
Starting a revolution
More than three years in the making, it brings to life humanity’s enduring battle against an illness that has afflicted almost all complex life forms since the dawn of time. Highfield describes how one of the most thought-provoking exhibits is a fossil of Centrosaurus apertus, a horned, plant-eating dinosaur that lived about 76 million years ago.
Discovered in Canada in 1989, scientists reported in 2020 that they had found it contained a form of bone cancer known as advanced osteosarcoma.
“There’s a perception that somehow cancer is a disease of modern life,” Highfield says. “But it’s actually a disease that came about with multicellular life, which has been around for a heck of a long time. We’re getting more cancer because we’re living for longer, and our increasing cancer risk is a consequence.”
This fossil is one of a multitude of objects, films and stories which have been curated by the museum’s staff, through hundreds of interviews with doctors, nurses, patients, cancer researchers, and even palaeontologists.
“The exhibition takes you inside the story of cancer, metaphorically speaking,” says Terry Kavanagh, a lung cancer survivor who has been living with the disease for 33 years, and was one of several patients on the exhibition’s expert advisory panel who provided their insights for the exhibition.
“Step into a tumour, look inside a lung. And while the emotional blur of diagnosis can only be experienced by the patient, the exhibition does reel you in. It gives the public a chance to walk in the patient’s shoes.”
A long-term investment
For us at Cancer Research UK, this immersive experience is vital to educating the public, both about the complexities of cancer as a disease, but also the progress that has been made in treating it. In partnering with the SMG in taking it from concept to reality, our expert knowledge helped shape the exhibition, offering access to cutting-edge research and the people involved in it.
We provide the financial backing for nearly 50% of all publicly funded cancer research in the UK, but, as Iain Foulkes, our executive director of research and innovation, explains, this reliance on the charity sector comes with an element of fragility.
“Being able to commit long-term funds to research comes down to people’s generosity every year,” he says. “When we started working on this exhibition a few years ago, there was a sense that science was taken for granted a bit, and we wanted to show people how those incremental gains can compound into meaningful breakthroughs in the context of cancer. And we wanted to share our excitement about the future, and where we feel science is taking us.”
Such long-term investments are crucial because cancer is fiendishly complex. While scientists once dreamed of finding a single standalone cure for all cancers, this has proven to be somewhat naive. There are a vast range of molecular differences from one tumour to the next, and each cancer cell has its own unique set of interactions with the patient which can lead to resistance against drugs.
Katie Dabin, the SMG’s lead curator of the exhibition, says the exhibition highlights the work of researchers exploring the biggest questions: “Why do treatments sometimes stop working? Why does cancer come back in some people but not others? How can we help more people with cancer live better and longer?
“As we developed the exhibition, the passion, commitment and ingenuity of cancer researchers and the amazing altruism of patients collaborating within research, has proved hugely inspirational.”
One major focal point of the exhibition is a giant 3D tumour, three metres in width, while an animation demonstrates how tumours evolve. “This gives you a sense of the complexity of an advanced tumour and what we’re dealing with,” says Highfield.
But through their growing understanding of cancer, researchers have been able to develop ever more advanced methods of targeting its weak spots. Foulkes explains how the exhibition takes the public through the history of cancer treatments, from the earliest radiotherapy machines, to robotic surgery and proton beam therapy.
“You see this really crude radiotherapy device where the patient would be positioned under a big metal arm holding a block of radium, and exposed to the radiation,” he says.
“And now today we have MRI scanners providing live imaging, which link to linear accelerators delivering incredibly precise doses of radiotherapy which contour to the shape of a patient’s individual tumour, minimising the damage to healthy tissues. It’s leaps and bounds ahead of what it used to be, and that sense of progress is what we wanted to convey.”
Guiding the way forward
The coming years are expected to yield even more sophisticated diagnostics and personalised treatments. This could transform many cancers from killers to diseases that can be detected early and cured, or managed chronically over a lengthy period of time.
An example featured in Cancer Revolution is the new Galleri multi-cancer early detection test. This is a “liquid biopsy” blood test currently being trialled across the NHS, which holds promise to pick up some of the earliest signs of more than 50 different types of cancer.
The exhibition also showcases research at the Francis Crick Institute in central London, where scientists are developing ways to grow organoids – miniature versions of cancer patients’ tumours – allowing them to test individual drugs in the lab. The Crick is currently holding its own exhibition, Outwitting Cancer, featuring work taking place there.
One of our ambitions is to improve cancer survival to three in four patients by 2034. As our CEO Michelle Mitchell explains, the progress made on protecting people form cervical cancer illustrates what is possible. “Research is driving a cancer revolution, which results in improved care and outcomes,” she says.
“As an example, we funded some of the earliest research into cervical cancer screening in the 1950s. Then in the 1990s, our scientists helped prove the link between HPV and cervical cancer [which other studies had underestimated], paving the way for huge progress in preventing HPV-related cancers.”
For Foulkes, the goal of the exhibition is to excite people about the promise that science offers for the future, so they can see that their donations will ultimately make a difference, even if it takes many years for tangible outcomes to emerge.
“This is an incredibly complicated disease to unravel,” he says. “You see from the exhibition, just how long it takes. For example, it takes decades to go from basic understanding to discovering a new drug, and getting that drug trialled and accepted into the health service. It’s typically a 10- to 20-year journey.
“And therefore, I think it’s really important that we excite people about what we’re doing today, so they can see that their continued funding will lead to more improvements to help save more lives.”
To explore some of the research featured in the exhibition visit jointhecancerrevolution.org or book a free ticket to visit in London at https://www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/see-and-do/cancer-revolution-science-innovation-and-hope
This article was originally published on theguardian.com as part of the Cancer Research UK and Guardian Labs Cancer revolutionaries campaign.