Breast Cancer Awareness Month: the companies pioneering medical improvements

Staci West 03/10/19 in Strategy

Chances are, someone in your life has had breast cancer. Whether it’s a friend, a loved one, a colleague, a boss… I can think of at least four survivors off the top of my head, one of whom is my Mum.

My Story

I was at school when my Mum was diagnosed. And I was at school the day she had her surgery. I’d wanted to stay home, but my Dad insisted it would be a long day and I should go to school to keep my mind off things.

After school, my oldest sister came to pick me up and we drove to the hospital. In one corner of the waiting room, clutching her rosary, was my Grandmother. She paused only briefly from her prayer to ask how my day was. Sat across from her, studying his Sudoku book, but not actually writing, was my Dad. My sisters sat in silence. So I pulled out my homework and my Grandfather helped me with my equations.

After an eternity, the doctor came in and spoke to my Dad: the operation had been successful. This September, my Mum celebrated 10 years cancer free. Sadly, not everyone is that lucky.

Breast cancer in the UK

Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK. Around 55,000 women and 370 men are diagnosed every year. That’s one person every 10 minutes. 12 people have been diagnosed in the time it has taken me to write this article.

So although October is the month of pink, it’s more than just one month for me – and for many thousands of others. It’s every day I speak to my Mum. It’s every time I put on my dog Kendall’s breast cancer collar and take her for a walk. It’s every time I open my draw and see it full of my fund-raiser t-shirts.

While the news can be devastating, there is hope, as survival rates are improving. In the UK, it has doubled over the past 40 years due to a combination of earlier detection, faster diagnosis and improvements in treatment and care.

A subject close to my heart, I decided to find out which companies are pioneering further medical improvements.

Merck & Co

James Douglas, co-manager of Polar Capital Global Healthcare Trust, told me about Merck & Co. One of the largest positions in the trust*. It works in a variety of areas but two very specific ones are fighting cancer and preventing it. “Merck has a drug called Keytruda, which uses a patient’s own immune system to help fight tumours,” James explained. “It is very clever science that, importantly, can be used for a number of different cancers. The company has also just this week released some positive data – from a trial it has carried out looking at how effective it may be as a treatment to help fight triple negative breast cancer.

Merck also has the Gardasil vaccine which can be used to prevent HPV infection. This vaccine can help prevent cancers – like cervical cancer – caused by the virus. “If children around the world can be vaccinated against HPV, it is possible that some cancers could almost be eradicated in the future,” James said.


Catharine Flood, corporate strategy director for Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust, highlighted Illumina. It’s a US company, but the genome-sequencing technology it owns was invented at the University of Cambridge.

“Illumina has brought down the cost of genetic sequencing from tens of thousands of US dollars to just under $1,000 today,” Catharine said. “It’s taken sequencing beyond the academics to the real world and the ultimate goal is to make it the same price as a cup of coffee – then it can be a daily testing mechanism.”

The real world application of this is that physicians are increasingly able to use sequence data to identify the particular type of cancer a patient has. This enables them to make better choices for treatments.

“Illumina also created a private company called Grail that we also invest in,” continued Catharine. “It provides liquid biopsy tests – blood tests – for all types of cancer. Grail has found that the most aggressive cancers give the cleanest markers. It can detect cancers at an earlier stage, which in turn increases the survival rate.”

Thermo Fisher Scientific

One of the companies held in the BMO Responsible Global Equity fund is Thermo Fisher Scientific, a global provider of high-quality life sciences equipment and services. It serves pharmaceuticals and biotechnology companies, academic and government institutions, industrial applications and testing initiatives, and diagnostics and healthcare organisations.

Nick Henderson told us: “Its innovative products enhance the accuracy and safety of healthcare processes and research, ultimately enabling improved care and well-being for patients. Not only does Thermo Fisher Scientific provide researchers with a variety of breast cancer detection products – such as the Oncomine Breast cfDNA Assay and TaqMan Mutation Detection Assays – it also offers equipment integral to cancer stem cell and immunotherapy research.

“The company has collaborated with institutions to progress breast cancer research, education and product development, including the Ontario Institute for Cancer Research (OICR) and Queen’s University in 2016, Caltech University in 2018 and, more recently, the OICR and Genome Canada (a government-funded non-profit organisation) in July 2019.

“Thermo Fisher Scientific is a high conviction holding within the portfolio, given its quality product offering and management execution, driving strong customer relationships, market positions and recurring revenues.”

Seimens Healthineers

Tim Dey, co-manager of Smith & Williamson Artificial Intelligence fund, told me about German company, Siemens Healthineers. Known for its diagnostic imaging, it is training artificial intelligence (AI) to help identify potential tumours. It listed on the Frankfurt stock exchange for the first time in March 2018.

Tim said: “The AI is a tool designed to help radiologists interpret images faster and more accurately, and to reduce the time involved in documenting results.”

In many countries, the number of radiological examinations is constantly growing, but the number of experts is not keeping pace. As a result, it is not uncommon for radiologists to conduct as many as 100 examinations in a day. This means that they interpret a new clinical image every three to four seconds – for eight hours a day and more.

“Say you have 100 images,” Tim continued. The AI can quickly and accurately identify those that are not an issue, leaving the radiologist more time to concentrate on a smaller number that look suspicious. It’s a great way of concentrating resources, getting patients help faster and making the increased workload of radiologists more manageable.”


To the lab technicians, the scientists, the doctors, the nurses and the charities: thank you.
To those who have died, those who have survived, those that are still fighting, and those that have stood along-side you supporting: this article is for you.


*as at 30 August 2019

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