Scientists have identified viruses that may trigger cancer meaning it may be possible to develop a vaccine to protect people from the disease and save thousands of lives every year
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As many as 47,000 Brits could be spared a cancer diagnosis by a vaccine (Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Scientists believe cancer may be triggered by viruses meaning thousands of lives could be saved by a vaccine.
Jabs could be developed to attack 11 newly-discovered pathogens experts think play a role in one in eight tumours.
With 363,000 cancer cases diagnosed in Britain each year, potentially 47,000 could be prevented by such a vaccine.
Cancer kills 165,000 people every year in Britain so a vaccine preventing cases could save thousands of lives.
Experts from the University of East Anglia arrived at the findings by analysing tumour DNA.
A vaccine that targets the trigger viruses could save thousands of lives
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Dr Daniel Brewer said: “There is strong evidence that viruses play a role in the development of cancer.
“If there is a virus, then you can develop a vaccine to prevent it or slow it down.”
It also emerged today that the first signs of cancer can appear years if not decades before diagnosis.
The scientists' findings have raised hopes for new tests that would help detect the disease much earlier.
Genetic mutations that drive the disease begin to occur long before any other signs begin to surface.
Clemency Jolly, from the Francis Crick Institute and one of the researchers involved in the research, said: "What's extraordinary is how some of the genetic changes appear to have occurred many years before diagnosis, long before any other signs that a cancer may develop, and perhaps even in apparently normal tissue."
One in eight tumours could be prevented by a jab
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Dr Lincoln Stein, from the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research in Canada, who was also involved in the research, said: "With the knowledge we have gained about the origins and evolution of tumours, we can develop new tools and therapies to detect cancer earlier, develop more targeted therapies and treat patients more successfully."
An international team of researchers, which included experts from the UK, looked at the genetic material, or genome, of tumours.
Their work, as part of the global Pan-Cancer Analysis of Whole Genomes project, involved creating the most comprehensive map on whole cancer genomes to date.
The team analysed and sequenced nearly 2,700 whole genomes of cancer samples and mapped mutations in 38 different types of tumours.
363,000 cancer diagnoses are made in Britain every year
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While human cells undergo billions of mutations, only a small number of them, called driver mutations, give rise to cancer.
The researchers looked at how many times a single change, or driver mutation, had been replicated and copied across chromosomes.
Using what they describe as a "carbon dating method", they were able to determine the order in which the mutations happened and the relative timing between them.
The team found that these mutations occurred "particularly early" in ovarian cancer as well as two types of brain tumours, glioblastoma and medulloblastoma.
Dr Peter Van Loo, from the Francis Crick Institute and one of the researchers involved in the Pan-Cancer project, said: "We've developed the first timelines of genetic mutations across the spectrum of cancer types.
"For more than 30 cancers, we now know what specific genetic changes are likely to happen, and when these are likely to take place.
"Unlocking these patterns means it should now be possible to develop new diagnostic tests, that pick up signs of cancer much earlier."
The comprehensive analysis is detailed in six papers published in Nature and is as part of a wider collection of 22 papers published in other Nature Research journals.
Professor Peter Johnson, NHS national clinical director for cancer, said: "The earliest possible detection of cancer remains the best chance of surviving the disease and a major goal for the NHS as we deliver our long-term plan.
"Finding ways to turn research like this into tests we can use in the clinic, could revolutionise when and how we diagnose cancer in the future.
"The NHS has committed to expanding genomic testing for patients as part of our long-term plan, and is focused on action to diagnose three-quarters of cancers at an early stage, when treatment is most effective."