Page last updated at 08:05 GMT, Friday, 4 July 2008 09:05 UK

Seeking cures in slugs and trees

By Eleanor Bradford
Health correspondent, BBC Scotland

We often report on discoveries in the field of cancer research, but it can be many years before those developments make it to the patient.

Yew tree
Yew trees, sea slugs and mushrooms are all being used for new treatments

Scientists might be working with microscopic quantities, or unstable ingredients. Enter the curious world of the Formulation Unit at Strathclyde University.

This is where a team of scientists from Cancer Research UK figure out how to get new treatments from the bench to the bedside.

One of the drugs they worked on, Temodal, was explosive. It was needed worldwide in clinical trials for the treatment of brain and skin cancer, but the team could only process it in very small quantities.

Another, Adept, (Antibody Directed Enzyme Pro-drug Therapy) was also very volatile, but the chemical which ants use as a defensive spray, formic acid, proved the solution to stabilise the drug. Clinical trials are continuing.

Other compounds being worked on by the unit have been sourced from the common sea slug, yew trees, mushrooms and Madagascan periwinkle.

It takes five to eight years to transform a scientific discovery into a capsule or ampule for use in clinical trials, and the Formulation Unit in Glasgow supplies all the clinical trials of drugs developed by Cancer Research UK.

We're actually going to have to do more to treat fewer patients
Prof Gavin Halbert
Strathclyde University
Over the past 60 years, survival rates for cancer have improved dramatically.

Take leukaemia, for example. In the 1970s, only a quarter of children diagnosed with leukaemia were alive five years later. Now experts predict three-quarters of children diagnosed today will be completely cured.

The director of the unit, Prof Gavin Halbert, said he had also noticed the way cancer treatment is changing.

"The big change that is happening just now is that we are getting drugs that are more specific for particular types of cancers," he said.

"That means that we're actually going to have to do more to treat fewer patients."

So, the cost of producing each cancer treatment will rise for charities like Cancer Research UK, and drugs developed by pharmaceutical companies will become increasingly expensive.

That will force the NHS to make even tougher choices in the future about what it can and cannot afford.

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