The Science Museum in London surveys the history and treatment of cancer

LONDON – With so many cancer survivors – in the United States alone, about 40 percent will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime – it would be understandable if the disease were a common and mandatory topic for museum shows.

Despite the statistics, there have been very few major exhibitions on cancer. But on Wednesday, the “Cancer Revolution: Science, Innovation and Hope” opened at the Science Museum in London. The show, which runs through January 2023, is one of the first major institutional efforts to tell the full story of the disease and its treatment.

The exhibition features objects associated with primary surgery – which was performed without anesthesia – as well as demonstrating how artificial intelligence and virtual reality are helping doctors diagnose and treat diseases.

Katie Dobbins, curator of medicine at the Science Museum, said in a telephone interview that an exhibition on cancer could easily be “cold and clinical” – “it’s a tough sale for a family day,” she admitted.

To avoid this, he said, he tried to include objects to arouse interest in the subject and make visitors feel comfortable discussing their fears and hopes about the disease. Dabin is well aware of those fears – his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer just as the show was put together. As her mother recovered – “Touch Wood, she’s healed,” Dobin said – she also felt a growing hope that medical science could make progress.

In an hour-long conversation, Dobbin talks about some of the show’s exhibits that feature curiosities like a machine found in a tree with tumors and machines involved in sophisticated technology, such as gene editing. Edited here for the essence, content and clarity of his commentary.

The idea is that cancer is a modern disease, and very unique to humans, and many people blame themselves when diagnosing it: ‘What have I done?’ But cancer affects all multicellular life. It is a disease of the cell and unfortunately when the cell divides, sometimes that process goes wrong.

It is a shinbone from a Centrosaurus apertus: a horned, plant-eating dinosaur that lived in Alberta, Canada, about 76 million years ago. Researchers at McMaster University and the Royal Ontario Museum have placed bones in almost the same process as a human being diagnosed with cancer – even a CT scan – to prove that dinosaurs also had cancer.

Plants can also get cancer, such as plant tumors known as crown galls. Because plant cell walls are more rigid, cancer cells do not spread in the same way as humans and animals.

Physicians have always been aware of cancer – the name comes from the ancient Greek word for crab – but in ancient times, they knew there was nothing they could do to help. Cancer will often return. But things have improved with our understanding of anatomy and advanced medical techniques.

This is a cast of Robert Penman’s face. When he started to notice the growth of his jaw at the age of 16 which continued to grow. In 1828, when Penman was 24 years old, a Scottish surgeon named James Sime performed an extraordinary operation to remove the tumor. This was a few years before anesthesia was widely used, and Penman was certainly in excruciating pain, but throughout the entire 24-minute operation he sat up straight in a chair. He has fully recovered.

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

Surgery is still the main method of tumor removal, but after the discovery of X-rays in 1895, radiotherapy was soon used. Scientists realized that X-rays could damage healthy skin, so doctors put the two and the two together and thought, ‘If they can harm healthy cells, they can also damage cancer cells.’ The problem with X-rays was that they could not penetrate deep into the body, so radium was often used instead.

The most common form of radiotherapy is the use of linear particle accelerators. Scientists made them in the 1950’s and they were basically a heavy duty X-ray machine. This is a toy version that doctors give children so they can understand the process and find it less scary.

Another major form of cancer treatment is chemotherapy. This has amazing sources. In World War I, mustard gas was used as a chemical weapon, and doctors found that the number of white blood cells in infected soldiers was very low. So they started experimenting and thought, ‘Well, if it kills white blood cells, maybe it could help with blood cancer, where white blood cells are rapidly dividing.’

Two U.S. researchers, Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman, tested the use of nitrogen mustard as a therapy for advanced lymphomas, and it opened the door to research into other chemicals.

In the 50’s and 60’s, the side effects of chemotherapy were so severe that the medical community found it very difficult to accept it as a treatment. Today, there may still be many. These are the medications that Anne-Mary Wilson, one of the patients participating in our exhibition, takes each month to manage the side effects of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma treatment.

“She has had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, surgery and it has affected her eyesight, her stomach and digestion, her bones. We don’t want to miss out on the side effects, but there is a lot of research going on to improve them.

When patients go through treatment, there are obviously many concerns about how they will feel, how their identities will change, and how their families will react. But many families truly come together to help someone cope with the treatment. It’s a wig stand by Sarah Hard, another patient who helped us with the show and her daughter decorated it to make it less awkward and scary.

Henrietta Lacs was an African American mother of five, and a very strong, bubbly character who died of cervical cancer at the age of 31. I can’t imagine how horrible it was for her in the 1950s, because of her race and the stigma of cancer, and that this was so close somewhere.

She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the research team found it very interesting that her cancer was so invasive, so without her consent or the consent of her family, they started cultivating them with cell samples. These cells were named Hela and have been incredibly effective in cancer and other studies, but you can understand why her family is still so upset about what happened.

There are many exciting areas of cancer research and one of the most influential concerns in early detection of cancer is because it can help save lives. This is a cytosponge designed to help detect esophageal cancer – which is usually difficult to detect because it is often confused with heartburn. A cytosponge is a pill that you swallow and when it dissolves it opens into a small sponge that pulls through the throat and collects all the cells along the esophagus. They can then be sent for analysis using a fancy process.

The test can be done in the doctor’s office so that the patient does not have to go to the hospital, has to be anesthetized and has a camera around their neck.

Another exciting area that has recently opened up is personalized cell therapy. It is an apheresis machine and is used to collect a patient’s white blood cells, which are sent to a lab for genetic modification to attach a receptor that helps them detect and kill cancer cells.

It doesn’t work for everyone – it’s for a very specific group of patients and it’s hard to go through them – so I don’t want to say it’s okay. It is expensive, it is very difficult and it is time consuming.

But where we are trying to go, there is less use of drugs to kill cancer cells; It is better to equip our own body to recognize and fight disease.

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