Health: Behind the scenes of cancer research in Leeds

Health reporter Jonathan Brown visits the 'powerwall' at Leeds St James's Hospital. Picture by Gary Longbottom.
Health reporter Jonathan Brown visits the 'powerwall' at Leeds St James's Hospital. Picture by Gary Longbottom.
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Being handed a Playstation controller and pointed towards a wall of 12 interconnected plasma screen TVs is every teenage boy’s dream.

Masking my confusion, the reality dawned that this was not a mammoth computer game as I was introduced to the mythical-sounding ‘powerwall’.

Research scientist Laura Sethi at Leeds St James's Hospital. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

Research scientist Laura Sethi at Leeds St James's Hospital. Picture by Gary Longbottom.

Displaying a highly magnified cross-section of a cancer-stricken bowel, this gizmo is one of the high-tech aids helping pathologists and researchers at Leeds St James’s Hospital investigate serious illnesses.

This labyrinth of a hospital hosts many leading lights in cancer research, so unsurprisingly going behind the scenes to see real life innovation in Leeds did throw up a few surprises.

The powerwall, in St James’s Welcome Trust Brenner Building, can magnify something the size of a fingernail to the size of a squash court – and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Over the bridged walkway to the dedicated Cancer Research Building lies the heart of much of the work part-funded by Cancer Research UK, which considers St James’s as one of its major centres.

Research scientist Laura Sethi, from the hospital’s Children’s Cancer Research Group, is part of a team investigating the impact new antibody therapy has on seriously ill children with rare neuroblastoma in an international clinical trial.

“It’s already been proven that none of the treatments out there are effective enough,” she said, having recently returned from a conference in Vienna to discuss findings with colleagues as far afield as Israel.

The hazard tape-lined corridors and sterile labs she operates in are at the forefront of the British side of the trial – its work funded by Cancer Research UK, The Neuroblastoma Society and the Candlelighters Trust. This work and much of the equipment is dependant on donations from the public.

Ms Sethi continued: “You feel like you’re making a difference and forensic science is quite reactive – you can’t really get more involved than this.”

Project leader Prof Sue Burchill explained that the work is reacting to the fact that many children with aggressive neuroblastoma succumb to the disease within two years. She said: “We have developed more informative ways to identify children that need alternative treatment and are currently investigating methods to improve survival rates from this dreadful disease.”

At the centre of a respected research facility I have to say I’m somewhat in awe and out of my depth. Our charity donations pay for this.

We should be proud of this. Leeds is at the forefront.

THE RARE CANCER AT THE CENTRE OF RESEARCH

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that mostly affects young children. It develops from nerve cells called neuroblasts, which run down the back of the chest and stomach.

The condition affects around 100 children a year in the UK, usually aged five and under.

It’s often hard to diagnose neuroblastoma in the early stages, as initial symptoms are often common aches, loss of energy and loss of appetite.

Almost half of cases are an aggressive form and, despite very intensive treatment, the cancer may return.

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