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10:00 - 04 March 2006

Every year, breast cancer hits 2,000-plus women in Wales. But new research in Swansea is looking at how to target tumours more effectively. Health correspondent SUSAN BAILEY reports.

Hundreds of cancer patients in Swansea have donated tissue and blood to the new Wales Cancer Bank - to help find tomorrow's cures. And as the precious data starts to build up, one of the key areas of research being undertaken in the city is breast cancer in younger women.

For the first time, Welsh cancer experts have access to a large and growing collection of samples and data to help them test theories and carry out more planned research into the role of genes.

The Wales Cancer Bank, set up less than two years ago, already has 450 patients' details on board, including more than 200 from Swansea alone.

Its principal scientist is Gerry Thomas, based at the South West Wales Cancer Institute at Singleton Hospital.

She never doubted the enthusiasm of patients to contribute tissue samples, but was still amazed by the positive response to requests, especially as people were often still coming to terms with their condition when they were asked.

Dr Thomas said the cancer bank was now fast approaching the stage of having enough patients on board to begin issuing early research material.

Already, access to raw data is being requested by scientists all over the UK.

"We are now gathering information from patients with breast, thyroid, colorectal, ovarian, prostate, renal and head and neck cancers," she said.

"Having so much tissue and blood to work from meant it was much easier for researchers to understand the genetic readouts of genes in tumours.

"One of the studies we are doing is looking at whether some cancer patients need chemotherapy, or whether the genetic make-up of their tumour is such that they would do just as well without it," she said.

"Avoiding unnecessary chemo - which can be pretty nasty - is what we are aiming for."

Dr Thomas said another line of research was trying better to understand the breast tumours of younger women, who are the least likely group to contract the disease, as the risk goes up with age.

High-profile cases, like singer Kylie Minogue's, have helped turn the spotlight on others like her.

Scientists believe the key lies in the tumours' genes.

"We do know that the tumour of a woman in her 30s is quite different from one of a woman in her 70s, and is likely to respond differently to different treatments," said Dr Thomas.

But at the moment, the most common way of treating breast cancers is centred on where the cancer is in the breast, rather than its genetic make-up.

Tomorrow's treatment will be much more finely tuned and targeted, with the hope that more lives will be saved and with fewer side-effects along the way.

Dr Thomas said it would probably be six years before any of the research being undertaken now finally bore fruit.

"It's really exciting stuff, but we won't be producing any miracles overnight.

"What patients in Swansea are doing, however, is helping enormously by agreeing to contribute their tissue.

"Without it, it would be much harder to get anywhere."

She added: "I guessed they would be supportive, but they have been very keen indeed, and in some cases patients who have not yet been approached will go up to one of the nurses to ask to take part because they've heard about it from another patient.

"The support is overwhelming."

There are only two other tissue banks in the UK, in Nottingham and Peterborough, but neither is on the same scale as the Welsh one.

Patients take part by volunteering tiny samples of their tumours and blood, which are frozen for future research.

Healthy relatives are also asked to provide blood samples, so these can be used as a control because families have often experienced similar environmental factors.

All samples are kept anonymous, so researchers have no idea of the identity of the patient who gave the tissue.

Four sites in Wales are collecting tissue: Swansea, Cardiff, Haverfordwest and Bangor.

The work of the cancer bank will be highlighted at a major South Wales conference on Wednesday and Thursday next week, called Collaborating in Cancer Research 2006.

Up to 300 delegates from across Wales are expected to meet at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, along with cancer specialists from other parts of the UK. They will be pooling their experience and expertise of cancer research.

Dame Deirdre Hine, chairwoman of the Wales Cancer Institute Partners Forum, said: "Finding new drugs and treatments for cancer patients can only be achieved through collaboration and partnership.

"This is an exciting opportunity to develop a cancer research community in Wales which will bring all the relevant stakeholders under one roof."

Despite huge advances in cancer treatments, the disease is still the cause of 26 per cent of deaths in the UK each year. The World Health Organisation estimates there are 10 million new cases every year, and six million deaths.

There are more than 200 different types of cancer, but the main culprits are breast, lung, large bowel and prostate, which account for more than half of all new cases.

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