Bone cancer (sarcoma)

Primary bone cancer (also known as bone sarcoma) is a type of cancer that forms as a lump (tumour) in bone. The human body contains more than 200 bones and although it is rare, cancer can occur in any part of our bones. As the cancer cells multiply, the affected bone can be weakened, causing swelling, pain and other problems. Tumours may start in the bone (primary cancer) or may start in another part of the body and spread to the bone (secondary cancer). The most common places where bone cancer develops are around the knee, the wrist, the shoulder and the pelvis.

Risk factors

Age: bone cancer most commonly affects teenagers and young adults, and people over the age of 55. Bone cancer that develops later in life is usually linked to a prior disease of the bone, such as Paget disease.
Radiotherapy: there is a small increased risk of bone cancer for people who've had radiotherapy. Radiotherapy sometimes affects bone in the treatment area. The risk is higher for people who had high doses of radiotherapy at a very young age. Most people who've had radiotherapy in the past won't develop a bone cancer.
Other medical conditions: some people who've had Paget disease of the bone, fibrous dysplasia or multiple enchondromas are at higher risk of bone cancer.
Genetic factors: most bone cancers aren't caused by inheriting a faulty gene. However, some inherited conditions, such as Li-Fraumeni syndrome, put people at higher risk. People who have a strong family history of certain types of cancer are also at risk.


Signs and symptoms of bone cancer can include:

  • painful bones and joints – the pain is often worse at night
  • swelling of bones and joints
  • problems with movement
  • susceptibility to fractures.
  • unexplained weight loss
  • tiredness
  • fever and sweating


Diagnosing bone cancer can involve a number of tests, including X-rays and bone scans, to show the exact location and size of the cancer

Bone biopsy: a biopsy is the only sure way to diagnose bone cancer. It involves taking a small sample of cells from the bone and examining them in the laboratory for the presence of cancer cells. If the cells are cancerous, further tests may be done by a pathologist to determine the exact type of cancer.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan: MRI scans are similar to a CT scan, but MRI’s use magnetism instead of x-rays to build three-dimensional pictures of your body. These are more commonly being used to investigate possible bone tumours.


Most people with primary bone cancer will need a combination of different treatments. Surgery is the main treatment for most types of bone cancer and can be used to remove the cancer, surrounding bone tissue and nearby lymph nodes. Treatment may also include radiotherapy (x-rays to target and kill the cancer cells) and chemotherapy (anti-cancer drugs). These may be given before surgery, to shrink the cancer, or afterwards to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

Research at the Perkins

Our research at the Perkins focuses on understanding the control of sarcoma cell migration and invasion, and the connections between genes that regulate these processes. The way that cells manage the information networks inside themselves involves being able to control how different enzymes interact with each other. In sarcoma cells this process is upset but we still don’t know all the connections that are wrong and exactly which ones we need to fix to try and get better drugs to treat bone cancer patients.

  • Our research aims to get a much better picture of the connections between different enzymes within normal and sarcoma cells so we have better information to know how to treat cancers. We use advanced technologies to look inside cancer cells and see the different connections that exist, and how drugs can disrupt some of these connections.
  • The new knowledge we will gain from this research will greatly help our understanding of sarcomas, and identify new ways we might be able to design better drugs to treat them.

Sarcoma research at the Perkins is funded significantly by Sock it to Sarcoma!

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