Dame Esther Rantzen has celebrated the legacy of a Daily Express campaign that fuelled a breast cancer breakthrough – leading to genetic tests to predict risk and new treatments.
Generous readers donated £200,000 to a fundraising appeal launched in September 1991 following the death of Express columnist Jean Rook from the disease.
The cash paid for a then cutting-edge automated DNA sequencing machine at The Institute of Cancer Research in London. It helped researchers who were racing to identify gene faults that increase risk of breast cancer to analyse DNA much more quickly.
They discovered the BRCA2 gene in 1995. Thousands of women have since undergone genetic testing to check whether they have inherited faults in this gene. New drugs have also been developed which target tumours in patients carrying mutations.
The campaign arose from a partnership with charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer, arranged by Dame Esther. Writing in this newspaper today, she recalls the moment 30 years ago when she urged then editor Sir Nick Lloyd to take up the cause.
Dame Esther says: “As we had predicted the Express readers responded with their usual generosity donating to the Jean Rook Appeal he launched in her memory.
“The funds raised by the Jean Rook Appeal have been used to help make crucial breakthroughs, such as the discovery of the BRCA2 gene which has been the foundation of important new treatments and ways to prevent breast cancer.”
Jean Rook was a journalist and Express columnist dubbed the “First Lady of Fleet Street”. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1989 and shared her experiences with readers before she died aged 59.
BRCA stands for BReast CAncer gene. Everyone has them but some people carry a mutation. This increases risk of breast and ovarian cancer in women, and male breast cancer and prostate cancer in men.
For example, a woman carrying a BRCA1 fault has a 60-90 percent risk of developing breast cancer during her lifetime, compared with a 15 percent risk for a woman in the general population.
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Around eight in 10 women who carry a faulty copy of a BRCA gene will develop breast cancer during their lifetime. They are also at increased risk of ovarian cancer.
Knowing their risk allows women to make treatment decisions, such as opting for more screening or mastectomies. The BRCA1 gene was discovered in 1994. Angelina Jolie famously underwent a double mastectomy after being told she carried a fault.
Elizabeth Leech, 56, was tested in 2008 after her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and her aunt with breast cancer. She was told she carried a faulty BRCA2 gene and chose to have a hysterectomy and a double mastectomy.
Elizabeth, of Kent, said: “I’ve never regretted my decision to have surgery even when lots of people couldn’t understand why I’d have healthy tissue removed.
“I’d seen my mum and aunt so poorly during their chemotherapy and I just couldn’t take the risk for my family.”
Elizabeth’s 22-year-old daughter was also tested recently and found to be negative. She added: “I’m so grateful that we found out about the BRCA2 gene alteration in our family and can’t thank the scientists enough who worked so hard to make this discovery, and all the supporters, like the Daily Express readers, who played a part in helping to fund this work.”
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Breakthrough Breast Cancer was merged with Breast Cancer Campaign in 2015 to form Breast Cancer Now, the UK’s largest charity dedicated to the disease.
Elizabeth volunteers for the charity and leads a local support group with more than 200 members.
Dr Simon Vincent, Breast Cancer Now’s director of research, said the machine purchased after the Express campaign was a “crucial piece of equipment”.
Genetic testing is also now allowing patients to be offered more targeted drugs, known as PARP inhibitors. Cancer cells affected by BRCA mutations are particularly sensitive to these.
Dr Vincent said: “This is a real legacy of what Jean Rook campaigners and the Express have done.
“We can now give options which include drugs to treat the cancer and stop it coming back. That’s a fantastic breakthrough, really only in the last five to seven years.
“Increasingly, you’re going to see these targeted therapies where as we diagnose somebody with breast cancer, very early on we take a sample from that tumour and we say, ‘what is going on at a DNA level?’”
Professor Chris Lord, deputy leader of the Breast Cancer Now Toby Robins Research Centre at The Institute of Cancer Research, said the machine had been “transformative”.
He added: “It changed the speed at which the DNA sequence of a single gene could be discovered – from years to months. The BRCA2 gene discovery continues to impact people’s lives decades later.
“Initially, it enabled families with a history of breast cancer to receive genetic testing, and be assessed for future risk, but it also sparked many avenues of breast cancer research which have uncovered new treatments for people with inherited breast cancers.
“The identification of BRCA2 culminated in the development of PARP inhibitors – a class of drug that selectively kills cancer cells in people with mutations in BRCA1 or BRCA2, and prolongs the lives of women with breast cancer.”
The number of people diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the UK has risen from 25,000 in 1991 to 55,000 today.
However, the number of annual deaths from the disease has decreased from 15,000 to 11,500 over the same time.
Breast Cancer Now is the research and support charity here for anyone affected by breast cancer. Call their free helpline on 0808 800 6000 to speak to their expert nurses or find out more and donate here.
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