FINDING a cure for cancer remains the ultimate prize in medical science.

Researchers have made many gradual advances over the years, which steers the way in which we understand, diagnose and treat the disease. Survival rates are improving, even for some of the hardest cancers to treat, and more of us than ever before are living longer after a diagnosis.

What hasn’t changed, of course, is the fear that exists around this cruel condition and the devastation it continues to cause for so many; few among us are untouched. Last year in Scotland almost 16,000 people died of cancer.

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Researchers are working tirelessly to distil the knowledge that will help them create new treatments, none more so than those at the University of Dundee, which has a long history of success in this field.

With this in mind we must hope that the latest theory posited by its scientists is proved right, since it would herald a major global breakthrough and, potentially, a new approach to treating and preventing the disease.

A study published today suggests our ageing immune systems play a far more important role in cancer incidence than was previously believed, findings that may explain the higher likelihood of men developing cancer than women.

The science behind this thesis - which hones in on ageing - is both illuminating and fascinating. We have known for some time that cell mutations, as a result of genetic predisposition, or lifestyle and environmental factors, cause cancer. The traditional view of scientists is that cancer increases with age because of such multiple mutations.

The Dundee team, which also features researchers from Herriot Watt and Edinburgh University, as well as the Institut Curie in France, have shown that age-related decline in the immune system may actually be a stronger factor in the increasing incidence of developing cancer than multiple mutations.

The researchers looked at data on two million cases of cancer in the 18-70 age range and created a mathematical equation to compare the two approaches, with their model fitting the data better than the existing multiple mutation theory. This would also account for the gender difference in cancer incidence, since the immune system is known to decline more slowly in women than men.

As pointed out by the scientists, this research is in its early stages and further studies will be needed to see whether their theory is borne out. But when team leader Dr Thea Newman, one of the University of Dundee’s most eminent and respected professors, talks of the possibility of having discovered “a whole new way to treat and prevent cancer”, there will rightly be excitement and hope around the world that this development turns out to be what we would all wish it to be: a genuine breakthrough that will save lives.

Immunotherapies, which boost the body’s own immune system in order to fight tumours, are already at the cutting edge of cancer treatment and producing increasingly impressive results. Last July, the drug pembrolizumab was approved for use for some lung cancer patients in Scotland; it is also thought to help those with Crohn’s Disease and Hodgkin Lymphoma.

The Dundee research offers a huge potential boost not only to the success of this type of treatment in future, but also the ability to prevent cancer in the first place.

It’s extremely heartening to see Scottish universities yet again at the forefront of the fight against cancer. They continue to punch far above their weight in the field of biomedical science and we must support them in every way possible.

For now, however, we congratulate the Dundee team behind this latest research, and join them in hoping it proves to be a seminal step in the fight against this terrible, perplexing disease.