Risk Assessment

For UK readers a title that instantly raises the spectre of the ’Elf & Safety police and the annoyance, irritation and amusement generated by the seemingly ubiquitous injunctions of their minions. Even my department is not spared, the harbinger of warm weather invariably being an email reminding us that this is no reason for abandoning the rule that at all times we should wear a lab coat – though, to be fair, our local enforcer usually includes the cheeky inference that we retain the option of going naked underneath. Ah, The Joy of Science! ’E & S’s reputation comes, of course, from periodically making the headlines by banning a centuries-old tradition in some rustic backwater involving such fun activities as rolling cheeses down a hill.

Stuart Kettell and sprout

Stuart Kettell and sprout

Mind you, they’ve slipped up recently by allowing Stuart Kettell to push a Brussels sprout up Mount Snowdon with his nose. As that’s 3,560ft (vertically) he probably did lasting damage to his knees, to say nothing of his hooter, as well as inflicting grievous bodily harm on 22 sprouts (they wear out on the basalt, obviously). By his own admission, he’s probably mad – but he did at least raise some money for Macmillan Cancer Support.


But why are we bothered about assessing risk?

Setting the above entertainment to one side, estimating risk can be a really serious business and never more so than when it comes to cancer. It’s an especially contentious, long-running issue for breast cancer and both in Betrayed by Nature and more recently in Behind the Screen I tried to crystallize some clear guidelines from the vast amount of available info. In short these were: ignore commercial plugs for thermography – the only test to go for is mammography – i.e. X-ray imaging to find breast cancer before a lump can be felt. And the simple message you were relieved to read in BbN was that, whilst the matter is controversial, if you are offered screening, accept – but be aware that the method is not perfect. There’s a small risk that a cancer may be missed and a bigger chance that something abnormal but harmless will be picked up – a signal for intervention (by surgery and drugs) and that, in those cases, would be unnecessary.

And we’re revisiting this question?

Because there have been some recent contributions to the debate that might well have increased confusion and concern in equal measure for women who are desperately trying to make sense of it all. The most controversial of these comes from a panel of experts (The Swiss Medical Board) who reviewed the history of mammography screening – and recommended that the current programmes in Switzerland should be phased out and not replaced.

Needless to say, their report caused a furore, not only in Switzerland, with experts damning its conclusions as ‘unethical’ – mainly because they ran counter to the consensus that screening has to be a good thing.

So what did the Swiss Big Cheeses point out to get into such hot water? Their view after considering the cumulative evidence was that systematic mammography might prevent about one breast cancer death for every 1,000 women screened. However, two other things struck them. First, it was not clear that this result outweighed the disadvantages of screening – what are inelegantly referred to as the ‘harms’ – the detection and treatment of something ‘abnormal but harmless’ mentioned earlier. Second that, on the basis of a survey by American group, women had a grossly optimistic idea of the benefits of mammography.

Good versus bad

Two of the weightiest bits of evidence that led them to conclude that screening does more harm than good were studies that had combined several independent investigations – what’s called a meta-analysis – which is a way of increasing your sample size and hence getting a more meaningful answer. One of these (The Independent United Kingdom Panel on Breast Cancer Screening) pulled together 11 trials from which it emerged that women invited to screening had a reduction of about 20% in their risk of dying from breast cancer compared with controls who were not offered screening. So far so good. However, inevitably there were differences in methods between the trials, which made the UK Panel very cagey about drawing more specific conclusions but their best estimate was that, for every 10,000 UK women aged 50 years invited to screening for the next 20 years, 43 deaths from breast cancer would be prevented and 129 cases would be over-diagnosed. Over-diagnosis means detection of cancers that would never have been emerged during the lifetime of the individuals and these healthy women will be needlessly subjected to some combination of surgical interventions, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

The second combined study is from The Cochrane Collaboration, the trials involving more than 600,000 women. Their review also emphasized the variation in quality between different studies and noted that the most reliable showed that screening did not reduce breast cancer mortality. However, less rigorous methods introduced bias towards showing that screening did reduced breast cancer mortality. In this sort of trial “less rigorous” relates particularly to the problem of ensuring that the two groups of subjects are truly randomized – i.e. that nothing influences whether a woman is assigned to receive screening mammograms or not. This is much harder than it sounds, mainly because human beings do the assigning so there is always a chance of either a genuine mistake or a flaw in the design of a particular study. One simple example of how the best laid plans … The consent form for a study specifically states that women are assigned, at random, to either the mammography or no mammography group. Women are then examined by a specially trained nurse. However, if these two steps are reversed, assignment may be biased by the findings of the examination. Precisely such a failure to adhere to a protocol has been revealed in at least one study.

Making the liberal assumption that screening reduces mortality by 15% and that over-diagnosis occurs at a rate of 30%, they estimated that for every 2000 women invited for screening over 10 years, one will avoid dying of breast cancer and 10 will be treated unnecessarily. In addition, false alarms will subject 200 women to prolonged distress and anxiety.

All of which explains why, taking everything into consideration, the Big Cheeses recommended that the Swiss abandon mammography screening.

MammogramWhat does the NHS say?

Actions speak louder than words and in the UK women aged 50 to 70 are invited for mammography screening every three years. By way of explanation, the NHS document (NHS breast screening: Helping you decide) says that for every 200 screened about one life is saved from breast cancer. The American Cancer Society recommends screening annually from age 40 – so it’s clear that Britain and the USA are firmly in favour.

You will have noted that the NHS figure of one saved for every 200 screened is seriously at odds with the findings summarized above and they don’t say where it comes from. However, they are clear about the critical point in saying “for every 1 woman who has her life saved from breast cancer, about three women are diagnosed with a cancer that would never have become life-threatening.”

Misplaced optimism

It will be obvious by now that attaching precise numbers to the effects of screening is next to impossible but the overall message is clear. At best screening yields a small reduction in breast cancer deaths but this comes with a substantially greater number of women who are treated unnecessarily – hence the Swiss position that it is ethically difficult to justify a public health program that does more harm than good.

It’s a bit difficult to assess just how knowledgeable women are about the benefits of mammography screening but one study that tried came up with some positively alarming pointers. A telephone survey of more than 4000 randomly chosen females over 15 years of age in the USA, the UK, Italy and Switzerland revealed that a substantial majority believed that (i) screening prevents or reduces the risk of getting breast cancer, (ii) screening at least halves breast cancer mortality, and (iii) 10 years of regular screening prevents 10 or more breast cancer deaths per 1000 women.

A clear conclusion?

Rates of breast cancer mortality are declining. Hooray! And the five-year survival rate in developed countries is now about 90%. Hooray again! It seems probable that this trend is more though improved treatments and greater awareness – leading to early detection – than because of screening. Nevertheless, all that doesn’t alter the fact that where women are offered the choice they need to be as well informed as possible. The weaknesses of the telephone survey are obvious but the implication that misconceptions are widespread indicates that we need to do much better at explaining the facts of mammography screening.


Biller-Andorno N. and Jüni P. (2014). Abolishing mammography screening programs? A view from the Swiss Medical Board. New England Journal of Medicine 370:1965-7.

Independent UK Panel on Breast Cancer Screening. (2012). The benefits and harms of breast cancer screening: an independent review. Lancet 380:1778-86.

Gøtzsche, P.C. and Jørgensen, K.J. (2013). Screening for breast cancer with mammography. Cochrane Database Syst Rev; 6:CD001877.

Domenighetti G, D’Avanzo B, Egger M, et al. (2003). Women’s perception of the benefits of mammography screening: population-based survey in four countries. Int J Epidemiol., 32:816-21.

Spinning Out In Control

In Signs of Resistance and Seeing the Invisible we emphasized two things well known to the interested, namely that most cancer deaths occur because cells spread from the original (primary) to secondary sites (metastases) where they are very difficult to treat, and that this places massive importance on early detection. Many will also be familiar with the currently used methods for tumor detection – X-ray based imaging (as in mammography and CT scans) and PET that detects injected radioactive tracers. The problem is that these are not sensitive enough to detect growths smaller than about 1 cm in diameter – and by that point there are several hundred million cells in the tumor and some may already have metastasized.

Tumor cells spread around the body by detaching from the primary and getting into the circulatory system and it’s beginning to look as though quite literally tapping into the circulation may revolutionize cancer detection. Seeing the Invisible showed how silicon chip technology can be used to retrieve circulating tumor cells (CTCs) by getting them to stick to targets anchored in a flow cell. Although this is hugely promising, another very recent advance may be even more effective. This uses centrifugal force to separate cells in blood on the basis of their size – that’s the one that pushes outwards on objects rotating about an axis. Because force is proportional to mass and tumor cells are larger than red blood cells and most white cells, this effect can be used to extract CTCs from fluid being pumped around a spiral microchannel. The spirals are made from a silicon-based polymer (the same stuff that’s used for contact lenses) stuck on glass slides and they have two outlet channels. Their shape creates two-counter rotating vortices in the fluid that exert a drag force on the cells so that bigger (heavier) tumor cells can be selectively directed to one of the outlets. Typically red blood cells are about 6 microns (one-millionth of a metre), white cells 8-14 microns and CTCs 16-25 microns in diameter.

The vortices are named after a Cambridge chappie, William Dean, who worked on flow patterns in curved pipes and channels and you can look up Dean vortices on the internet for images of these in action.

MCF7s right, rest left

In this picture of the two exits from a spiral microchannel breast cancer cells are carried to the right (yellow arrows) whilst all the other types of blood cell funnel left.

This method appears to be remarkably efficient in that over 90% of tumor cells (10-100 cells per ml of blood) can be separated from 99.99% of red cells (5,000,000 per ml) and 99.6% of white cells (10,000 per ml).


Hou, H.W., Warkiani, M. E., Khoo, B.L., Li, Z.R., Soo, R.A., Tan, D.S.-W., Lim, W.-T., Bhagat, A.A.S., and Lim, C.T. (2013). Isolation and retrieval of circulating tumor cells using centrifugal forces. Scientific Reports 3, Article Number: 1259. DOI: 10.1038/srep01259.

Bhagat, A.A.S. et al., 15th International Conference on Miniaturized Systems for Chemistry and Life Sciences October 2-6, 2011, Seattle, Washington, USA

Spray Painting Cancer

I’m pretty certain that anyone reading this will be fully aware that one of the biggest problems in cancer is spotting the blighters. We have, of course, X-ray detection (as in mammography), CTs and MRI scans, all so familiar we need not bother to define them, and there’s also a variety of sampling methods for specific cancers (e.g., the Pap test for cervical cancer). But, useful though all these are, the plain fact of the matter is that none are ideal and in particular the pictures created by imaging methods are very limited in sensitivity. Put another way, they won’t pick something up until it is quite large – a centimeter in diameter – meaning that the abnormal growth is already quite advanced.

Cunning Chemistry

Needless to say, much inspiration and perspiration is being applied to this matter and what has been really exciting over the last ten years or so is the way very smart chemists are collaborating with clinicians to come up with new ways of looking at the problem. One of these clever tactics is being developed in the University of Tokyo using a different type of imaging ‘reporter’ that signals its presence by fluorescing. Fluorescence occurs when a molecule absorbs light and becomes ‘excited’ before relaxing back to its ‘ground state’ by giving off a photon. Fluorescent molecules (fluorophores) are much used in biology because the background signal is often very low so the high signal-to-noise ratio gives excellent sensitivity.

Spray Paint scheme

The cell-surface enzyme GGT converts the small molecule  gGlu-HMRG to a fluorescent form (HMRG) that is then taken up by the cell. GGT is only found on tumor cells so they light up and normal cells do not

Fortunately we don’t need to know how the chemists did it – merely to say that Yasuteru Urano and his colleagues came up with a small molecule (called gGlu-HMRG for short) that does not give off light until a small fragment is chopped off its end, whereupon it changes shape: this flips the switch that turns on fluorescence. The cutting step needs an enzyme that is found on the surface of various cancer cells but not in normal tissue (GGT for short).

Joining Forces

To show that there was real mileage in their idea they followed the time-honored blue-print of cancer research, showing first that it works on tumor cells grown in the lab (and, equally important, that it doesn’t highlight normal cells), before moving to mouse models of ovarian tumors. The later is where chemists meet clinicians because an endoscope is required (quite a small one) – a flexible tube for looking inside the body – devices now so sophisticated that they can incorporate a fluorescence camera.

In the final synthetic step the cunning chemists formulated a spray-on version of their probe molecule so that it can be dispensed during endoscopy or surgery – a bit like an underarm deodorant. Now it’s easy: find suspect tissue, give it a squirt of gGlu-HMRG, wait a few minutes and see if it lights up. The answer is, of course, that in their ovarian cancer model the spray-on graffiti lights up within 10 minutes of sticking to a tumor cell and can detect clumps of cells as small as 1 millimeter in diameter – a terrific advance in terms of sensitivity. The brief time taken for the signal to be visible after the probe has been applied means that within the same procedure it could be used to guide surgeons in removing small tumor masses.

The Tokyo system is not the only one under development. My colleague Andre Neves at the Cambridge Cancer Centre, another of these fiendishly clever chemists, is working on a parallel line using different fluorophores that can be topically applied to the lining of the intestine. The goal here is, of course, the early detection of colon tumors. Yet other approaches use molecules that accumulate preferentially in tumor cells and respond to light in the near-infrared region of the spectrum (800 nm to 2500 nm wavelength, compared to just under 500 nm for gGlu-HMRG), giving an even better signal-to-noise ratio.

This is, as Mr. Churchill might have pointed out, not even the beginning of the end of this story. But it is one more small and innovative step forward. Not all cancers even of the same type will be detectable by a given probe because they vary so much in the genes they express but the ingenuity of the chemists gives hope that a substantial panel of ever more sensitive reporters will emerge. It is also true that endoscopy is unlikely to gain widespread popularity as a routine screening method. However, these advances, moving us to detection at ever earlier stages may become very powerful as a follow-up test, combined with the capacity for simultaneous treatment, when tumor cells have been detected in more comfortable screens, for example as circulating cells in small blood samples, an immensely exciting prospect to which we will return in a later episode.


Urano, Y., Masayo Sakabe, Nobuyuki Kosaka, Mikako Ogawa, Makoto Mitsunaga, Daisuke Asanuma, Mako Kamiya, Matthew R. Young, Tetsuo Nagano, Peter L. Choyke, and Kobayashi, H. (2011). Rapid Cancer Detection by Topically Spraying a γ-Glutamyltranspeptidase–Activated Fluorescent Probe. Science Translational Medicine 3, 110ra119.


Shi, C. (2012). Comment on “Rapid Cancer Detection by Topically Spraying a γ-Glutamyltranspeptidase–Activated Fluorescent Probe. Science Translational Medicine 4, 121le1.


A Radiant Visitor

In an historic first, Cancer For All welcomes a guest, Stacey McGowan, who is a physicist just starting a Ph.D. on something called Proton Therapy. She is a member of the Department of Oncology in Cambridge and you can find out more about her in her blog www.planningforprotons.com but today she is going to take us into her world with a simple guide to radiotherapy in the treatment of cancer.

As undergraduate there was a lot of pressure to know what you wanted to do after graduation. I knew I wanted to stay in physics as it was what I loved; I also knew I wanted a job that meant something to me. I did not want to work in finance or for a defence company. At the time I also didn’t think I wanted to go into research! This seemed to have left me with two options, to work in the energy industry, or in medicine.

A lot of people, including my undergrad self, are unaware of medical physicists and their role in the hospital and in treating patients. After an inspiring talk at a careers event from a medical physicist working in the NHS I knew that this was what I wanted to do after graduation: I wanted to be a medical physicist.

There are three main methods for treating cancer; surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. A patient will usually receive one or more of these methods as part of their treatment. Of the cures achieved about 49% of them involve surgery, 11% involve chemotherapy and 40% involve radiotherapy. However of the NHS’s cancer budget surgery costs around 22%, chemotherapy 18% and radiotherapy just 5%. This makes radiotherapy both a successful treatment option, sometimes on its own but usually in combination with surgery or chemotherapy, and it is extremely cost effective. Despite this many people don’t really know what radiotherapy is and the prospect of it as a treatment often makes patients apprehensive. As much as radiation sounds scary, we are exposed to it all the time in nature from the sun and soil and nowadays in our homes from electrical devices including Wi-Fi and mobile phones. In addition, we use it in many diagnostic applications including X-rays, CT scanners and nuclear medicine.

The difference between the radiation used for cancer treatment and that received from other sources is in the amount of radiation, or dose, delivered. When I talk about dose, think of it in the same way you would any other type of medicine. An oncology doctor will prescribe a course of radiotherapy with a specific dose to be delivered to the patient every weekday for between 4 and 6 weeks. The radiation is delivered in the form of X-rays – highly energetic particles of light – delivered at higher energies and doses than those used to image a broken bone (Editor’s enlightenment: physicists tend to use the word ‘light’ to mean electromagnetic radiation of any wavelength – not just what the eye sees). To create such highly energetic light we need a powerful machine that can also precisely deliver the X-rays to the part of the patient where the cancer lies. This machine is known to the medical community as a linac, and to the scientific community as a linear accelerator!

The linacs used in the hospital differ from those used in physics research as medical linacs have a very different role and it is the medical physicists’ job to ensure they work as intended. The X-rays delivered to the patient will harm cells in their body, both cancerous and healthy, by damaging their DNA. It is extremely important that the cancer cells receive the dose necessary to kill them so that they cannot continue to grow, resulting in a cure. It is also a priority that healthy tissue receives the smallest possible radiation dose to ensure a low chance of long term side effects. To accomplish these goals linacs are designed to rotate about the patient so that the tumour can be targeted from more than one direction. Treatment is usually delivered in daily doses (known as fractions) over a period of a few weeks because healthy cells are better at repairing damage to their DNA than cancer cells, so they can recover from each dose, whereas damage will accumulate in the tumour cells. Cumulative DNA damage leads to cell death, stopping the cancer in its tracks.

Linacs can also shape the beam so that it will match the shape of the tumour, shielding the adjacent healthy tissue from the highest radiation doses. To produce such patient-specific and intricate treatments powerful computer programs are used to design the treatment based on images of the patient (usually CT scans). Oncologists and physicists will work together, distinguishing cancer tissue from healthy, choosing beam directions and designing beam shapes to ensure that the patient receives the optimal treatment.

Many types of cancers respond to radiotherapy including those of the lung, breast, prostate, brain and spine and the method can be used to treat both adults and children. The short term side effects from radiotherapy vary depending on the region being treated. For example, radiation of the abdominal area may cause digestive and bowel discomfort or if the head and neck is the target, the patient may experience difficulty swallowing and develop a dry mouth. Generally radiotherapy can lead to tiredness, nausea and skin irritation in the targeted areas. Long term side effects can include secondary cancer, more probably in young patients, and growth problems in children.

The future of radiotherapy in the NHS is to use of protons and not X-rays to deliver radiation for specific types of cancer. The nature of protons makes the aim of cure without complication more achievable and is the topic of my PhD research.

Unlike X-rays, protons have a finite range (we can choose where they stop) which reduces the amount of radiation exposure to the patient, making this form of therapy especially beneficial for spine and brain tumours in adults and for most cancers in children. Proton therapy is particularly attractive for treating childhood cancers because it is less likely than conventional radiotherapy to cause growth defects and other health complications, including the development of cancers in later life.

Despite the UK lacking the facilities necessary to treat cancer using proton radiotherapy, a limited number of NHS patients are currently offered this option abroad as part of the NHS Proton Overseas Programme. The Government also announced in April 2012 that two proton centres will be established in England, in Manchester and in London. It is hoped that these will start to treat patients by early 2017.

Stacey McGowan

Department of Oncology, University of Cambridge


A Ray of Sunshine

One of the fascinating things about cancer is that it touches every aspect of biology. Of course, most will know that it’s caused by mutations – changes in the material that carries our genetic code. But many influences play on the genetic keyboard of DNA and those that are part of the world around us are a very mixed bunch. In Betrayed by Nature I split them into two: those we can do something about and the rest. The latter includes radiation from the ground… it’s all around us, we’ve evolved bathed in it and, apart from not living where the levels of radon are particularly high, there’s nothing we can do about it – so just forget it.

At the other end of the spectrum, so to speak, comes sunshine. We’ve evolved with that too – indeed we wouldn’t be here without it. Aside from driving photosynthesis in plants, humans use the radiant energy of the sun to make vitamin D (sometimes called the “sunshine vitamin”). Vitamin D deficiency is one cause of the childhood bone defect rickets, a condition that has reappeared in the UK in recent years because some kids are seeing less of the sun. So for humans catching the rays is desirable but we teeter along a sunny tightrope between what we need and what may ultimately be fatal. The risk comes from the ultra violet component of sunlight – radiation that has sufficient energy to damage DNA directly, making it a mutagen that can cause cancer. The cancer in question is, of course, melanoma that develops from abnormal moles on the skin. The global incidence of melanoma is increasing and, in the UK, about 90% of cases are estimated to be linked to exposure to ultra violet light. To most folk this means sunshine but those so inclined can walk the tightrope horizontally by using sunbeds (incredibly, in 1999 Cancer Research UK found that a quarter of men and a third of women questioned said they’d used a gizmo of this sort in the previous six months).

Which goes to show that human beings seem unable to resist the pursuit of the unattainable. The fair skinned think it cool to be darker whilst pharmaceutical giants are apparently making pots from selling creams to Indian ladies on the pitch that they will lighten their skin!

… and not so good

Good rays …

With a sigh for humanity let us pass from risks we take for no reason other than vanity or stupidity to those we may feel obliged to take as the lesser of two awkward options. There’s almost no chance that anyone reading this hasn’t had an X-ray of some sort. We have them to give our dentist a precise guide to the cause of our agony, rather than have him solve the problem by a series of trial and error excavations, or to tell our orthopaedic surgeon how best to go about piecing together the results of our latest stress-test on the human frame. We know X-rays are bad for us – they’re even more energetic than ultra violet radiation, so they’re a super-mutagen. Waves of cancer you might say.

So the issue here is one of choice. It’s a bit like a general anaesthetic: they do tend to make you throw up and about one in every 100,000 is fatal but, confronted with surgery, which would you vote for: a whiff of halothane or the offer of a slug of whisky and a rag to bite on? Computed tomography (CT) is an alternative application of X-rays but, instead of a single shot giving a two-dimensional image, CT acquires a large number of such images, taken as the radiation beam moves through the body, to give a 3-D picture. This can represent whole organs, and it has become an immensely powerful diagnostic tool since its introduction in the early 1970s. However, there’s no advance without anguish, and the additional information provided by a CT scan requires much more radiation than a traditional X-ray (typically 10 millisievert (mSv) compared with about 0.04 mSv for a chest X-ray). As our annual dose of “unavoidable” natural radiation is about 3 mSv it’s probably safe to say that these medical exposures are not a serious hazard – although babies in the womb are particularly sensitive to radiation. Even so, there are estimates that about 1% of USA cancers are due to CT scans, although there is no evidence that doses below 100 mSv induce tumours in animals.

A new study has enlarged the picture by finding that CT scans of children under 15 may increase the risk of leukemia and brain cancer. Three-fold increases were estimated for acute lymphoblastic leukaemia as a result of five to ten scans and for brain tumours by two or three scans. This sounds somewhat scary but it’s worth noting that these diseases are very rare in children. In the UK the incidence in under-20 year olds is just over four per 100,000 of leukemia – slightly less for brain or central nervous system cancers.

So the evidence indicates a small increase in an already low level of risk. As ever in life, therefore, it’s a matter of balance. The sensible advice for children (and everyone else for that matter) is not to have CT scans unless they are likely to provide critical clinical information that cannot be obtained by other means, for example, ultrasound or conventional X-rays.


Pearce, M.S., Salotti, J.A., Little, M.P., McHugh, K., Lee, C., Kim, K.P., Howe, N.L., Ronckers, C.M., Rajaraman, P., Craft, A.W., Parker, L. and de González, A.B. (2012). Radiation exposure from CT scans in childhood and subsequent risk of leukaemia and brain tumours: a retrospective cohort study. The Lancet 380, 499–505.