The Duke of Cambridge was called into action as an amateur photographer during a visit to the Royal Marsden hospital today.
Prince William, the Marsden’s president, was asked by a patient to take a picture on her phone of her meeting fashion designer Ralph Lauren. William and Mr Lauren were opening the Ralph Lauren Centre for Breast Cancer Research.
The Marsden is on the verge of a ground-breaking advance by using DNA tests to determine whether breast cancer patients can be treated without chemotherapy.
Trials have shown that the blood tests – dubbed “liquid biopsies” – have reduced by a quarter the number of women requiring chemotherapy after having a tumour removed surgically.
The project, which could be more widely introduced within three years, is among several being pioneered at the Royal Marsden hospital that the Duke of Cambridge was being told about today as he opened the £4 million research centre on its Chelsea site.
Experts compared the breakthrough to the use of the PSA test for prostate cancer, which measures the level of protein in blood, and hoped it would eventually be able to detect breast cancer in undiagnosed patients.
Professor Mitch Dowsett, head of the centre, which sees about 1,000 patients a year, said between 50 to 100 patients with early breast cancer had already benefited. “I think it could radically change the management of patients if it all comes good,” he said.
The DNA test searches for “circulating tumours” in the blood and provides an “early warning” of whether the cancer, which would be undetectable on hospital scans, is still present after surgery, has returned or the patient is at risk of relapse.
The treatment is relevant for the 80 per cent of patients who have oestrogen receptor (ER)-positive breast cancer and gives clinicians greater certainty in recommending hormone therapy rather than chemotherapy, especially in those “intermediate” cases where the choice is not obvious.
“They go forward with the hormonal treatment without having the deleterious effects of chemotherapy – the hair loss, the nausea,” Professor Dowsett said.
Breast cancer is the UK’s most common cancer and kills more than 10,000 people a year. The number diagnosed has increased from 25,000 a year in 1988 to 53,000 in 2014. This is largely due to screening, and a growing and ageing population, but women having children later in life is also a factor.
Professor Dowsett decided to focus on the area after learning of concerns among doctors that research was failing to identify cancer patients who could safely avoid chemotherapy.
“Clinicians realised they were over-treating a number of patients unnecessarily. There is a cost issue, there is a time issue and, in particular, there is a patient toxicity and tolerability issue.
“Introducing these tests has reduced the use of chemotherapy in this particular centre by 25 per cent. It’s saved the hospital £100,000 to £125,000 a year on drugs.”
The Marsden’s research underlines the importance of aromatase inhibitors in the treatment of (ER)-positive breast cancer in post-menopausal women where they reduce risk of death from breast cancer by 40 per cent, 10 points more than the older hormonal treatment Tamoxifen.
William said as he unveiled a plaque to mark the centre’s opening: “I’m delighted to be back here at The Royal Marsden – it is always a place which gives me so much hope and inspiration, and a place which clearly means so much to so many people.
“I am unbelievably proud to be President of The Royal Marsden – every time I visit I see groundbreaking work carried out with extraordinary professionalism and compassion.
“Seeing the courage and spirit of the patients I met today, it would be hard not to feel positive about the work being done here, and the real difference it makes. A difference which I know extends beyond the four walls of this hospital, to cancer patients across the U.K. and internationally.
“So much of the work at The Royal Marsden would not be possible without the support of The Royal Marsden Cancer Charity and people like Ralph Lauren and Don McCarthy whose generosity has enabled the creation of these wonderful facilities.
“Speaking to the clinicians and researchers earlier this morning, I’m confident the Ralph Lauren Centre for Breast Cancer Research will set a new benchmark for breast cancer research. Their work is already having an extraordinary impact and the patients I met today are testament to that.
“The Centre will be a wonderful addition to this world-leading hospital, enabling The Royal Marsden to continue its pioneering work, so it gives me great pleasure to declare the Ralph Lauren Centre for Breast Cancer Research officially open.”