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Sunday, 12 November, 2000, 00:16 GMT
Last hope against cancer
Diane Ranson
Diane Ranson was offered a radical new therapy
Scientists' latest attempts to tackle tumours previously considered incurable by doctors are bringing new hope - but only for a few so far.

Patients offering themselves for trials of the latest, most experimental, cancer therapies are hailed as pioneers, but often feel their advanced disease leaves them little option.

The BBC's series "Superhuman", to be broadcast on Sunday, features patients taking part in clinical trials of cutting edge treatments.

They take part knowing that the drugs and treatments they are undergoing offer them only a slim final chance of beating cancer.

But their participation, say doctors, may well pave the way for a revolution in cancer therapy over the next century.

tumour scan
Diane's tumour had grown to a huge size
For Diane Ranson, conventional surgery and chemotherapy have failed to halt the spread of cancer from her womb and ovaries.

She came to Dr Gordon Rustin at Mount Vernon Hospital in north London with a massive secondary tumour in her abdomen, growing fast.

Dr Rustin has persuaded her to help him test a new drug made from an extract of the African bush willow plant.

It is hoped that the drug could work by shutting down the blood vessels which feed the tumour cells with nutrients and oxygen, perhaps slowing or stopping its growth, or even start to shrink it.

The drug is injected into a vein, and within hours, Diane is feeling pain at the tumour site - a sign that the blood supply to the growth may have been interrupted.

A scan confirms what is happening. Dr Rustin told her: "The scan looks dramatically different. The blood supply to the tumour has virtually stopped."

Donald Hardy - feeling well
But doctors know virtually nothing about how long such an effect can be maintained - or even whether the tumour can be harmed, and in Diane's case, despite repeated treatments, further scans do not show any shrinking of the tumour - in fact, it grows and spreads.

Four months later, she died from the disease.

But although experimental treatments have not helped everyone, in some cases they have produced remarkable results.

Mesothelioma is a cancer of the lungs caused in most cases by breathing asbestos dust or fibres. It is almost invariably lethal.

Donald Hardy, a resident of Florida, was facing this fact when he heard about a trial of gene therapy at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania.

In fact, he was the first patient to undergo the therapy - and his progress since has amazed even those doctors with the most faith in the new technology.

The gene therapy involved changing the genetic makeup of a virus, then passing it into the lungs to "infect" the cancer cells, and pass on their genetic changes into the cancer cells to sending their reproductive capability haywire.

Donald is now still at home in Florida, and appears to be at least winning this round against the cancer - although doctors are hesitant to declare him cured.

Dr Don Sterman is in charge of the trial.

'Rickety old kite'

He says: "We are the Wright Brothers - we have got a rickety old kite with an automobile engine strapped to it, and are trying to fly over the sand dunes.

"We don't have the 747 yet - but we are going to get there.

"It took many many years for antibiotics to be developed."

If the technology is currently hit and miss, then Jeff Allen represents a palpable hit.

Malignant melanoma - the most dangerous form of skin cancer, had spread to his lymphatic system, and even into his spine when he was referred into a trial of a novel cancer "vaccine".

This aimed to harness and increase the power of the immune system to battle the intruding cancer cells.

After a few months of vaccine, the cancer not only stopped spreading within his bones, but also started to disappear.

Jeff says: "Everything that was looking bad is looking better."

He currently appears to be free of cancer - as are half of melanoma patients given the vaccine five years later.

Superhuman will be shown on BBC1 on Sunday 12 November at 2100 GMT.

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