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

LONDON – With so many lives touched by cancer – in the United States alone, approximately 40% will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime – it would perhaps be understandable that the disease should be a common and unavoidable subject for museum exhibitions.

Despite the statistics, major cancer exhibitions are rare. But on Wednesday,Revolution against cancer: science, innovation and hopeopened at the Science Museum in London. The show, which runs until January 2023, is one of the first major institutional efforts to tell the full story of the disease and its treatment.

The exhibit includes artifacts related to early surgeries – which were conducted without anesthesia – as well as exhibits showing how artificial intelligence and virtual reality are now helping doctors detect and treat disease.

Katie Dabin, curator of medicine at the Science Museum, said in a phone interview that a cancer exhibit could easily have ended up being ‘cold and clinical’ – ‘That’s a tough sell for a family day out “, she admitted.

To avoid this, she said, she tried to include artifacts to spark interest in the topic 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 set up. With her mother recovering – “Touch wood, she’s cured,” Dabin said – she also experienced the growing hope that advances in medical science can bring her.

During an hour-long chat, Dabin talked about some of the show’s exhibits, which feature curiosities such as a tumor found in a tree and machines involved in cutting-edge technology such as editing. of genes. The following are excerpts from his commentary, edited for content and clarity.

There’s this perception that cancer is a modern disease, and very human, and that causes a lot of people to blame themselves when they’re diagnosed: “What did I do? But cancer affects all multicellular life. It is a disease of cells and unfortunately when cells divide, on occasion, this process goes wrong.

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

Plants can also get cancer, such as the tree tumor known as crown gall. Because plants have stiffer cell walls, cancer cells don’t spread the way they do in humans and animals.

Doctors have always been aware of cancer – its name derives from the ancient Greek word for crab – but in ancient times they knew there was little they could do to help. The cancers often came back. But things have improved with our understanding of anatomy and better medical techniques.

This is a cast of Robert Penman’s face. He was 16 when he started noticing a growth on his jaw that kept growing. In 1828, when Penman was 24, a Scottish surgeon named James Syme performed a remarkable operation to remove the tumor. It was years before anesthesia was widely used, and Penman must have been in excruciating pain, but he sat straight in a chair for the entire 24-minute operation. He made a full recovery.

The cast of Penman’s jaw was likely made to document the case, but the 3D prints are now used to help plan complex surgeries, like that of a tumor that was in a girl’s abdomen 6 year old named Leah Bennett. The tumor was wrapped around his spine and major blood vessels, and several surgical teams thought it was 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% of the tumor and Leah eventually returned to school.

Surgery is still the main way to remove tumors, but after the discovery of X-rays in 1895, radiation therapy was soon used as well. After scientists realized x-rays could damage healthy skin, doctors put two and two together and 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 they are basically a heavy-duty x-ray machine. This is a toy version that doctors give to children so they understand the process and find it less scary.

The other major form of cancer treatment is chemotherapy. This has surprising origins. During World War I, mustard gas was used as a chemical weapon and doctors observed that soldiers who were hit had very low white blood cell counts. So they started experimenting and thought, “Well, if it kills the white blood cells, maybe it can help in blood cancers, where the white blood cells are rapidly dividing.”

Two researchers in the United States, Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman, tested the use of nitrogen mustard as a treatment for advanced lymphomas, which opened up the field for research into other chemicals.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the side effects of chemotherapy were so terrible that the medical community had a hard time accepting it as a treatment. Today, there may still be many. These are all the drugs that Ann-Marie Wilson, one of the patients who participated in our exhibition, takes each month to manage the side effects of her treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

“She had chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and it affected things like her eyesight, her stomach and her digestion, her bones. We didn’t want to avoid the impacts of side effects, but there is a lot of research being done to improve them.

When patients go through treatment, they obviously worry a lot about how they’re going to feel, how their identity is going to change, how their family is going to react. But many families do come together to help someone cope with treatment. This is a wig stand belonging to Sarah Herd, another patient who helped our exhibit, and her daughter decorated it to make it less awkward and scary.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American mother of five and a very strong and bubbly character who died of cervical cancer at the age of 31. I can’t imagine how awful it must have been for her in the 1950s, given her race and cancer stigma. , and that it was somewhere intimate.

She was treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital, and the research team found it very interesting that her cancer was so aggressive, so without her or her family’s consent, they took cell samples and began to process them. cultivate. These cells were named HeLa after her and have become incredibly useful in cancer research and other research, but you can understand why her family is still very hurt by what happened.

There are many exciting areas of cancer research and one of the most important relates to the early detection of cancers, as it can help save lives. It is a cytosponge developed to help detect cancer of the esophagus – a cancer normally difficult to detect as it is often mistaken for heartburn. The cytosponge is a pill that you swallow, and when it dissolves, it opens up into a small sponge that is pulled down your throat and collects all the cells along the esophagus. These can then be sent for analysis using new methods.

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

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

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

But what we’re trying to get at is somewhere less about using drugs to kill cancer cells; it is better to equip our own body to recognize and fight disease.

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