Actually ‘I’m one of the first patients in the world to be saved by DNA cancer treatment’

Actor Ian Liston

Ian Liston was told he would die

He was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2003 after going to see his GP because he had increasingly been getting up at night to go to the toilet. Actor Ian Liston is one of the first in the world to benefit from a revolutionary new DNA-based precision cancer medicine.

He began treatment but in 2004, he suffered another hammer blow – he was told his cancer had spread to his shoulder blade, ribs and hip.

His GP told him there were no treatment options and advised him to check out hospices for end of life care.

But Ian, 67, who starred in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back and has also appeared in Coronation Street , refused to give up, and volunteered to take part in drug trials at the Royal Marsden Hospital.

Amazingly, seven drugs trials later and 12 years after he was originally diagnosed, he is healthy and cancer free.

The key to his miraculous story? DNA-based precision cancer medicine.

He became one of the first Brits to have his cancer DNA tested in 2010 – and it has helped save his life.

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One entrance to the Royal Marsden Hospital
Ian was treated at the Royal Marsden Hospital

Prof Johann de Bono, who has led research into precision medicine at the Royal Marsden for a decade, explained: “We did a DNA test of his tumour, and the sequencing of his tumour DNA showed he had an aberration of the gene BRCA2.”

A faulty BRCA2 gene can increase the risk of different cancers in both men and women.

As a result of the DNA test, he could then benefit from a targeted treatment, and in September 2010 started a trial for the drug olaparib, which is aimed at cells with BRCA genetic mutations.

The drug meant the tumours in his prostate could shrink enough for him to receive radiotherapy.

Read more: Couple refuse to let cancer get in the way of love

Prof de Bono said: “He was found to have a particular genomic aberration in his tumour, that led us to give him a specific drug that works in that subtype of prostate cancer and he’s now had several years of remission.

“This drug olaparib could target this ‘Achilles heel’ in his DNA. He then had a complete response and has done very well.

“If he had stayed on standard therapy, Ian would not be alive now. The DNA testing enabled us to find a targeted treatment for him, and that has proved extremely successful.”

Ian Liston in Star Wars

Ian, pictured in his Star Wars role, lives to fight another day

Ian, of West Sussex, who is married to Vivien, 64, said that his most recent MRI and CT scans and blood tests in March this year showed an all-clear for prostate cancer and the secondary cancer in his bones.

Ian said: “The DNA test came about by accident. I was speaking to my nurse, and just happened to mention that I’d lost my cousin to prostate cancer.

“After hearing a family member had the same disease as me, she referred me for a DNA test. The test results came back and they revealed that I had a faulty BRCA2 gene.

Read more: Mum’s shock after daughter’s ‘insect bite’ turned out to be cancer

“So they got a drug that was primarily used in women for ovarian and breast cancer, olaparib, which helps correct the faulty BRCA2 gene.

“I think they thought, ‘What if we try this in a man with a faulty BRCA2 gene?’ So I volunteered and six years on I’m still alive.

The treatment is based on DNA analysis

“I’m the perfect example of someone who has benefited from precision medicine. I am alive and healthy and extremely grateful.

“When you consider how 12 years ago I was told to look at hospices, it’s a tremendous message of hope. I think we are now just around the corner from turning cancer from a terminal disease to a chronic condition.”

How the treatment works

Prof Johann De Bono, head of drug development, Institute of Cancer Research, London, and Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust


Precision medicine basically means we are doing a DNA analysis of tumour samples, and by figuring out what a patient’s genomics shows, we can allocate the patient to a particular treatment or trial based on the information.

The whole concept of precision medicine is predicated on trying to really match each patient’s tumours specifically to the treatment that has the best chance of benefiting the patient.

There can be major benefits for patients – we are very excited about it.

Prof Johann De Bono

Prof Johann De Bono helped develop the treatment

What patients need to be aware of, is that we can now look at their tumour by genomic testing and if we identify what we call, actionable genomic aberrations, that we can use that to decide what drug to give the patient.

It’s no longer just thinking about whether the cancer has come from the breast or the bowel or the lung. There’s more to it than that.

Breast cancer is 20 different diseases for example. Prostate cancer similarly.

It’s not being done on the NHS because it’s still research protocol – a lot of this is still being researched.

At present, there are still a lot of unknowns, so it is still in the realms of research. But I think that things are changing very quickly.

Currently, you might just look at the cells, but that doesn’t really give you the best information.

With precision medicine, we get a fresh sample, a tumour biopsy, you extract DNA from that sample, you put it on the sequencing machine.

Prostate cancer
A prostate cancer cell

It can vary from £200 for what we call targeted sequencing, where we do a couple of genes, or it can go to £2,000 to £3,000. And the costs are plummeting all the time.

And once you understand the tumour genomics, you actually use that to determine what treatment to give the patient. The DNA analysis helps you understand what is wrong in the cell’s engine.

The key message is that this is an amazing time in cancer research, and things are changing very quickly.

Is precision medicine going to impact on patient care? Yes it is. It’s having an impact now for some cancers including prostate, ovarian, breast, lung and even colorectal.

We are using this DNA information to really change patient care. People are living longer as result of precision medicine, and receiving less toxic treatment.