London Science Museum Examines the History and Treatment of Cancer


— While many lives are affected by — in the United States alone, approximately 40 percent will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime — it may be understandable that illness is a common and compelling topic for displays.

Despite the statistics, large exhibits on cancer were few and far between. But on Wednesday, “The Cancer Revolution: Science, Innovation and HopeOpened at the Museum in London. The show, which will run until January 2023, is one of the first major corporate efforts to tell the full story of the disease and its .

The exhibit includes objects linked to early surgeries performed without anesthesia, as well as images showing how artificial intelligence and virtual reality are now helping doctors detect and treat disease.

Katie Dabin, the Science Museum’s medical curator, said in a phone interview that an exhibit on cancer could easily end up being “cold and clinical” – “a hard sell for a family day out,” she said.

To avoid this, he said, he tried to add objects that would raise interest in the subject and make visitors feel comfortable discussing their fears and hopes about the disease. Dabin knows these fears all too well – his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer just as the exhibit was being prepared. As her mother recovered—“Touch the wood, it’s healed,” Dabin said—also experienced the growing hope that medical science progress could provide.

In the hour-long chat, Dabin talked about some of the show’s exhibits, which include enthusiasts like a tumor in a tree and machines involved in cutting-edge technology like gene editing. Here are excerpts from his comments, edited for content and clarity.

There is a perception that cancer is a modern disease and a very unique person, and this leads many people to blame themselves when diagnosed: ‘What have I done?’ However, cancer affects all multicellular life. It is a cell disease and unfortunately when cells divide, sometimes this process goes wrong.

This is a tibia from Centrosaurus apertus: a horned, plant-eating dinosaur that lived about 76 million years ago in Alberta, Canada. Researchers at McMaster University and the Royal Ontario Museum put the bone through the same process—even CT scans—of a human diagnosed with cancer today to prove that dinosaurs were also affected by cancer.

Plants can also get cancer, such as a tree tumor known as crown gall. Because plants have tougher cell walls, cancer cells do not spread like they do in humans and animals.

Doctors were always aware of cancer – its name comes from the ancient Greek word for crab – but they knew that in ancient times there wasn’t much they could do to help. Cancers would often come back. But with our understanding of anatomy and better medical techniques, things have improved.

This is a cast of Robert Penman’s face. She was 16 when she started noticing a growth on her chin that continued to grow. In 1828, when Penman was 24, a Scottish surgeon named James Syme performed a remarkable operation to remove the tumor. This was years before the widespread use of anesthesia, and Penman must have been in excruciating pain, but sat upright in a chair throughout the 24-minute operation. He made a full recovery.

A cast of Penman’s chin was probably made to document the case, but today 3-D prints are used to help plan complex surgeries, such as a tumor in the abdomen of a 6-year-old girl named Leah Bennett. The tumor had wrapped around his spine and major blood vessels, and several surgical teams considered it too risky to remove. But surgeons at Alder Hey Hospital near Liverpool worked with a 3D scanning company to produce this model and plan the surgery. They removed about 90 percent of the tumor, and Leah was finally back in school.

Surgery is still the main way to remove tumors, but after the discovery of X-rays in 1895, radiotherapy soon came into use as well. After scientists realized that X-rays could damage healthy skin, doctors thought, ‘If they can damage healthy cells, they can also damage cancer cells’. The problem with X-rays was that they couldn’t penetrate deep into the body, so radium was often used instead.

The most common form of radiotherapy today is the use of linear particle accelerators. Scientists developed them in the 1950s and are essentially a heavy-duty X-ray machine. This is a toy version that doctors give children to understand the process and find it less scary.

Another important form of cancer treatment is chemotherapy. This has surprising origins. Mustard gas was used as a chemical weapon in World War I, and doctors observed that the affected soldiers had very low white blood cell counts. So they started experimenting and they thought, ‘If it kills white blood cells, maybe it can help with blood cancers where the white blood cells divide rapidly.’

Two researchers in the United States, Louis Goodman and Alfred GilmanHe experimented with the use of nitrogen mustard as a treatment for advanced lymphomas, and this opened up space for research into other chemicals.

In the 50s and 60s the side effects of chemotherapy were so terrible that the medical community found it very difficult to accept it as a cure. It can still be a lot today. These are the medications that Ann-Marie Wilson, one of the patients participating in our exhibition, takes every month to manage the side effects of her non-Hodgkin lymphoma treatment.

“She had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery, and it affected things like vision, stomach, digestion, bones. We didn’t want to worry about the side effects, but there is a lot of research going on to improve them.

It is clear that when patients receive treatment, they have a lot of concerns about how they will feel, how their identities will change, how their families will react. But many families really come together to help someone cope with treatment. This is a wig stand that belonged to Sarah Herd, another patient of ours who helped with our exhibit, and her daughter decorated the exhibit to make it less awkward and scary.

Henrietta Shortcomings She was an African-American mother of five and a very strong, bubbly character who died of cervical cancer at 31. Judging by his race and the stigma of cancer, I can’t imagine how horrible that must have been for him in the 1950s and that it was in a friendly place.

She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the research team found it very interesting that her cancer was so aggressive, so they took cell samples without her or her family’s consent and started growing them. These cells were called HeLa, and they’ve been incredibly useful in cancer and other research, but you can understand why his family is still so upset about what’s going on.

There are many exciting areas of cancer research, and one of the most influential is the early detection of cancers because it can help save lives. This is a cytozone developed to help detect esophageal cancer – a cancer that is normally difficult to detect as it is often mistaken for heartburn. Cell sponge is a pill you swallow, and when dissolved, it opens into a small sponge that is pulled up the throat and collects all the cells along the esophagus. These can then be submitted for analysis using new processes.

The test can be done in a doctor’s office so the patient doesn’t have to go to the hospital, lose consciousness, and have a camera stuck in their throat.

Another exciting area that has opened up recently is personalized cell therapies. This is an apheresis machine and is used to collect a patient’s white blood cells, which are then sent to a lab to be genetically modified, adding a receptor that helps them detect and kill cancer cells.

It doesn’t work for everyone – for a very specific group of patients and it’s tiring for them to get over them – so I wouldn’t want to say it’s a solution. It is also expensive, very difficult and time consuming.

But where we’re trying to arrive is less than using drugs to kill cancer cells; It is much better to equip our own bodies to recognize the disease and fight it.



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