In November 2021, Cancer Research UK Chief Clinician, Professor Charles Swanton, visited our longstanding corporate partner ScottishPower at their headquarters in Glasgow. He was there during the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) to deliver the keynote speech at their ‘Air Pollution and Cancer’ event. This marked the start of a new focal area for our partnership with ScottishPower, which has been running since 2012 and has so far raised over £35m for life-saving research.
With ScottishPower’s focus on helping to tackle climate change through renewable energy and our continued partnership to help beat cancer, it was the perfect place to announce our joint ambition for a greener, healthier future for all. They proudly committed to help us shine a light on air pollution, the impact it has on cancer and the need for more research.
Since this inspiring event, we have made significant progress together. We recently shared results from TRACERx, our flagship investment in lung cancer research, which reveals how air pollution can cause lung cancer in particular for some people who have never smoked. Now, we’re digging deeper into this relationship in a follow-up study called TOPICAL and ScottishPower is kindly covering the costs.
At ScottishPower, we are incredibly proud of our partnership with Cancer Research UK which has now raised over £35m for the charity’s life-saving work. We have an absolute commitment to helping tackle climate change, so we’re delighted to support this vital research and shine a spotlight on the impact air pollution has on cancer. It’s exciting to see these landmark discoveries already being made.
Andrew Ward, Chief Executive Officer, UK Retail, ScottishPower.
How air pollution can cause cancer
We launched the TOPICAL study last February at the Francis Crick Institute, Europe’s largest biomedical research facility under one roof. Based in Charles’ laboratory, the TOPICAL researchers are uncovering how air pollution causes cancer. By understanding the molecules involved, they hope to lay the groundwork for the development of early detection strategies in people with lung cancer.
Around 99% of the world lives somewhere with air pollution levels above the World Health Organization’s air quality guidelines. This is a problem that impacts everyone’s health, and we urgently need to understand the science behind it.
Preventing lung cancer
Our scientists recently discovered that air pollution sets off a chemical alarm in our lungs called interleukin-1ß. This molecule causes inflammation, which can ultimately lead to lung cancer. Interleukin-1ß also helps cells decide when to divide, what type of cell to be, and when to die. All these processes play important roles in the development of cancer.
The TOPICAL researchers have been testing how different types of lung cells respond to interleukin-1ß. Unexpectedly, they found that different cells have varied reactions to this chemical alarm – for example, some grow uncontrollably, while others stop growing altogether. Studying the effects of this molecule in detail will be crucial to developing new treatments that could stop it from causing cancer.
As Dr Clare Weeden, one of the TOPICAL scientists, explains, “A lot of current research is about treating cancers that have already formed. But we want to shift the focus to preventing cancer in the first place. Understanding how air pollution promotes cancer may help us to do just this.”
Spotting lung cancer earlier
If we reduce air pollution to improve public health, will that be the end of the story? Possibly not. TOPICAL researchers are investigating whether our lung cells carry “memories” of air pollution.
Epigenetic marks are chemical changes made to our DNA. They can act like “memories” by storing information for a long time and could even be passed down through families. Although epigenetic marks don’t alter the message carried by our DNA, they do change how that message is read, which can lead to cancer.
Our TOPICAL scientists are looking for epigenetic marks caused by air pollution that make a cell more likely to become cancerous. In the future, this could pave the way for catching and treating cancers earlier, giving people the best chance of beating their disease.
Supporting the next generation of scientists
ScottishPower has covered the cost of the TOPICAL study through a Cancer Research UK Early Detection and Diagnosis Primer Award. We designed these awards to support scientists exploring high-risk research with transformative potential.
As an early career scientist, taking ownership of such an exciting project is invaluable to my career progression. It’s showcasing my ability to carry out research that pushes the field forwards and will open lots of doors for me soon. Thank you, ScottishPower, for your generous support of our work.
Dr William Hill, TOPICAL Co-lead Investigator
The TOPICAL study is already making important discoveries. And the potential impact of the research reaches far beyond air pollution and lung cancer. These findings could help us understand other diseases that may be caused by air pollution. This research could also explain how other risk factors like obesity, alcohol, and ageing lead to cancer and help people affected by cancer live longer, better lives.
Thank you to ScottishPower for helping us shine a light on the role air pollution plays in cancer and working together with us for a greener, healthier future.
– Written by Henry Stennett, Research Information Manager, Cancer Research UK