LONDON — With so many lives affected by cancer — in the United States alone, about 40 percent will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime — it would be understandable if the disease were a common and compelling subject for museum shows.
Despite the statistics, there have been few major cancer exhibits. But on Wednesday, “Cancer Revolution: Science, Innovation and Hope” opened at the Science Museum in London. The show, which will run through 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 — which were performed without anesthesia — as well as displays showing how artificial intelligence and virtual reality are now helping doctors detect and treat the disease.
Katie Dabin, the Science Museum’s curator of medicine, said in a telephone interview that a cancer exhibit could easily have gone “cold and clinical” — “It’s a hard sell for a family day out,” she acknowledged.
To avoid that, she said, she tried to add objects to spark interest in the topic and put visitors at ease to discuss their fears and hopes related to the disease. Dabin knows those fears all too well — her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer while the exhibit was being put together. Now that her mother is on the mend — “Touch wood, she’s healed,” Dabin said — she’s also experienced the growing hope that advances in medical science can bring.
In an hour-long conversation, Dabin talked about some of the show’s exhibits, featuring curiosities such as a tumor in a tree and machines involved in advanced technology such as gene editing. Here are excerpts of her commentary, edited for content and clarity.
A cancerous dinosaur bone and a tree tumor
There is a perception that cancer is a modern disease, and very uniquely human, and that leads many people to blame themselves when they are diagnosed, ‘What have I done?’ But cancer affects all multicellular life. It’s a disease of cells, and unfortunately, when cells divide, sometimes that process goes awry.
This is a tibia from a Centrosaurus apertus: a horned, herbivorous dinosaur that lived in Alberta, Canada about 76 million years ago. Researchers from McMaster University and the Royal Ontario Museum ran the bone through much the same process a human would be diagnosed with today — even CT scans — to prove that dinosaurs were also affected by cancer.
Plants can also develop cancer, such as the tree tumor known as crown gall. Because plants have stiffer cell walls, the cancer cells do not spread in the same way as in 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 there wasn’t much they could do to help. The cancers often came back. But things improved with our understanding of anatomy and better 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 a remarkable 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 entire 24 minute operation. He made a full recovery.
Printing tumors in 3-D
The cast of Penman’s jaw was probably created to document the case, but today 3D printing is used to plan complex surgeries, such as a tumor in the abdomen of a 6-year-old girl named Leah Bennett. The tumor had wrapped around her spine and major blood vessels, and several surgical teams thought it was too risky to remove. But surgeons at Alder Hey Hospital near Liverpool teamed up with a 3D scanning company to produce this model and plan the surgery. They removed about 90 percent of the tumor, and Leah eventually went back to school.
Glove with bag for radium spikes, from the 50s
Surgery is still the main way to remove tumors, but after X-rays were discovered in 1895, radiotherapy was soon used as well. After scientists realized that X-rays can damage healthy skin, 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 instead.
Technology of today: a model of a linear accelerator †LINAC) device
The most common form of radiotherapy 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 to children so that they understand the process and find it less scary.
World War I gas mask
The other major form of cancer treatment is chemotherapy. This has a surprising origin. In World War I, mustard gas was used as a chemical weapon, and doctors found that the affected soldiers had very low white blood cell counts. So they started experimenting and thought, “Well, if it kills white blood cells, maybe it can help with blood cancers, where white blood cells divide quickly.”
Two researchers in the United States, Louis Goodman and Alfred Gilman, tested the use of nitrogen mustard as a therapy for advanced lymphomas, opening the field for research into other chemicals.
The evolution of drugs to combat side effects
In the 1950s and 1960s, the side effects of chemotherapy were so bad that the medical world found it very difficult to accept it as a treatment. Today there may be many. These are all the drugs that Ann-Marie Wilson, one of the patients who participated in our exhibit, takes each month to manage the side effects of her treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
New developments in cancer research
Progress in the field. In recent years, advances in research have changed the way cancer is treated. Here are some recent updates:
“She’s had chemotherapy, radiotherapy, she’s had surgery and it’s affected things like her vision, her stomach and digestion, her bones. We didn’t want to shy away from the effects of side effects, but a lot of research is being done to improve them.
An uplifting wig stand
When patients undergo treatment, there is clearly a lot of concern about how they will feel, how their identity will change, how their family will react. But many families actually come together to help someone with treatment. This is a wig stand from 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 Fifties
Henrietta Lacks was an African American mother of five and a very strong, bubbly character who died of cervical cancer at the age of 31. I can’t imagine how awful that must have been for her in the 1950s, given her race and the stigma of cancer, and that this was somehow intimate.
She was being treated at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the research team thought it was very interesting that her cancer was so aggressive, so without her or her family’s permission, they took samples of the cells and started growing them. Those cells were named HeLa after her and have proved incredibly helpful in cancer and other research, but you can understand why her family is still very saddened by what happened.
Cytosponge — a modern advancement
There are so many exciting areas of cancer research and one of the most impactful is early detection of cancer because it can help save lives. This is a cytosponge designed to detect esophageal cancer – one that is normally difficult to detect, as it is often confused with heartburn. The cytosponge is a pill that you swallow, and when it dissolves, it opens up into a small sponge that is pulled down the throat and collects all the cells lining the esophagus. These can then be sent for analysis using new processes.
The test can be done in a doctor’s office, so the patient doesn’t have to go to a hospital, be rendered unconscious, and put a camera down their throat.
A promising treatment: cell therapy
Another exciting area that has recently opened up 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 lab to be genetically modified to add a 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 debilitating for them to keep going – so I wouldn’t say it’s the solution. It is also expensive, it is very difficult and it takes a lot of time.
But what we’re trying to get to is a little less about using drugs to kill cancer cells; it is much better to equip our own bodies to recognize and fight the disease.