LONDON – With so many lives affected by cancer – in the United States alone, approx 40 percent will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime – it might be understandable if illness were a common and compelling topic for museum exhibits.
Despite the statistics, major cancer exhibits have been few and far between. But Wednesday “Revolution against cancer: science, innovation and hope”Opened 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 objects related to early surgeries, conducted without anesthetic, as well as displays showing how artificial intelligence and virtual reality are now helping doctors detect and treat disease.
Katie Dabin, curator of medicine at the Museum of Science, said in a telephone interview that a cancer exhibit could easily have ended up being “cold and clinical” – “It’s hard to sell for a family day out,” she acknowledged.
To avoid this, he said, he tried to include items to fuel 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 received a diagnosis of breast cancer just as the exhibit was being set up. With his recovering mother – “Touch the wood, she’s healed,” Dabin said – he also experienced the growing hope that advancement in medical science can provide.
In an hour-long conversation, Dabin talked about some of the show’s exhibits, which feature curiosities like a tumor found in a tree and machines involved in cutting-edge technology like gene editing. Here are excerpts from his comment, edited for content and clarity.
A cancerous dinosaur bone and a tree tumor
There is this perception that cancer is a modern, and very uniquely human disease, which leads many people to blame themselves when diagnosed: “What have I done?” But cancer affects all multicellular life. It is a cell disease and unfortunately when cells divide, that process sometimes goes wrong.
This is a shin of a Centrosaurus apertus: a horned, plant-eating dinosaur that lived about 76 million years ago in Alberta, Canada. Researchers at McMaster University and the Royal Ontario Museum put bone through almost the same process in which a human would be diagnosed with cancer today – even CT scans – to show that dinosaurs were also affected by cancer.
Plants can also get cancer, such as tree cancer known as crown gall. Because plants have stiffer cell walls, cancer cells do not spread in the same way as humans and animals.
19th century cast of Robert Penman’s jaw
Doctors have always been aware of cancer – its name comes from the ancient Greek word for crab – but in ancient times they knew they couldn’t do much to help. The tumors often came back. But things got better with our understanding of anatomy and best 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 an extraordinary operation to remove the tumor. This was years before anesthesia was widely used and Penman must have been in excruciating pain, but he sat upright in a chair for the full 24 minutes of the operation. He fully recovered.
3D printing of tumors
The cast of Penman’s jaw was likely made to document the case, but today, 3D prints are used to help plan complex surgeries, such as that of a tumor that was in the abdomen of a 6-year-old girl named Leah. Bennett. The tumor was wrapped around his spine and major blood vessels, and several surgical teams found it too risky to remove. But surgeons from Alder Hey Hospital near Liverpool worked with a 3D scanning company to produce this model and plan for the surgery. They removed about 90 percent of the tumor, and Leah eventually went back to school.
Glove with case for radio tips, 1950s
Surgery is still the primary way to remove tumors, but after X-rays were discovered in 1895, radiation therapy was soon used as well. After the scientists realized that X-rays could damage healthy skin, the doctors put two and two together and thought, “If they can damage healthy cells, they can damage cancer cells too.” The problem with X-rays was that they couldn’t penetrate deep into the body, so radium was often used.
Today’s technology: a linear accelerator model (LINAC) device
The most common form of radiation therapy today is the use of linear particle accelerators. Scientists developed them in the 1950s and they are essentially a heavy-duty X-ray machine. This is a toy version that doctors give children so they understand the process and find it less scary.
Gas mask of the first world war
The other main form of cancer treatment is chemotherapy. This has surprising origins. In World War I, mustard gas was used as a chemical weapon and doctors observed that soldiers who had been hit had very low white blood cell counts. So they started experimenting and thought, “Well, if it’s killing white blood cells, maybe it can help in blood cancers, where white blood cells are dividing rapidly.”
The evolution of drugs to combat side effects
In the 1950s and 1960s, the side effects of chemotherapy were so dire that the medical community found it very difficult to accept them as a treatment. Today there may still be many. These are all the drugs Ann-Marie Wilson, one of the patients who attended our exhibit, takes every month to manage the side effects of her treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
New developments in cancer research
Progress on the ground. In recent years, advances in research have changed the way cancer is treated. Here are some recent updates:
“He had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, had surgery and it affected things like his vision, his stomach and digestion, his bones. We didn’t want to avoid the impact of side effects, but there is a great deal of research underway to improve them.
An uplifting wig rose
When patients go through treatment, there is obviously a lot of concern about how they will feel, how their identity will change, how their family will respond. But many families actually come together to help someone cope with treatment. This is a standing wig belonging to Sarah Herd, another patient who helped our exhibit, and her daughter decorated it to make it less awkward and scary.
Henrietta Lacks and an ethical controversy of the 1950s
Henrietta is missing 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 hideous it must have been for her in the 1950s, given her race and her cancer stigma, and that this was an intimate place.
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 started culturing them. Those cells were named HeLa after her and have become incredibly useful in her cancer and other research, but you can see why her family is still very saddened by what happened.
Cytosponge: a modern advance
There are so many exciting areas of cancer research and one of the most impacting concerns is early cancer detection, as this can help save lives. This is a cytosponge developed to help detect esophageal cancer, one that is normally difficult to detect as it is often confused with heartburn. Cytosponge is a pill that is swallowed and when it dissolves it opens into a small sponge which is pulled up through the throat and collects all the cells along the esophagus. These can then be submitted for analysis using new processes.
The test can be done in a doctor’s office so that the patient does not have to go to the hospital, faint and have a camera put in their throat.
A promising treatment: cell therapy
Another interesting area that has recently opened is personalized cell therapies. This is an apheresis machine and is used to collect a patient’s white blood cells, which are then sent to a laboratory to be genetically engineered so that they have an added 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 exhausting for them to go through – so I wouldn’t say it’s the solution. It is also expensive, very difficult and time consuming.
But where we’re trying to get to is somewhere less about using drugs to kill cancer cells; it is much better to equip our body to recognize and fight the disease.