Iain Foulkes is our executive director of research and innovation. Iain Foulkes, our executive director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK.
This entry is part 1 of 6 in the series COVID-19 research
No-one today would disagree with the Nobel scientist Peter Medawar when he described viruses as “bad news wrapped in a protein coat”. The COVID-19 virus is very bad news indeed, albeit wrapped in a lipid coat.
Despite being 450 times smaller than the width of a human hair, it’s done a pretty good job of crippling the entire world, our economy, and our way of life.
It’s also taking life at a rate and scale not seen for generations – a devastating impact, caused by something so small. Viruses aren’t even alive – they “are at the edge of life”, as the scientist Ed Rybicki once said.
In contrast, at Cancer Research UK we’re focused on one of the most complex diseases known to humans. Cancer of course comes from within our own cells and tissues. Its complexity is a function of our own biological complexity, and will take many years to crack.
But right now, the science of these two fields collide. The techniques and approaches used by cancer researchers for decades – epidemiology, molecular biology, virology and immunology – are the same disciplines being used to track, understand and defeat this virus.
The interplay also means our research community can get involved in the national and global effort to beat COVID-19.
How we’re responding to the COVID-19 crisis
The Cancer Research UK scientific family has provided much-needed kit and machinery, and volunteered their skills, to the national testing labs being set up across the devolved nations – an important effort to scale up the UK’s testing capacity.
At local levels, our scientists are converting their cancer labs to testing hubs.
Our chief clinician, Professor Charlie Swanton, spent 2 weeks leading a team from UCLH and the Francis Crick Institute, working day and night to get a test up and running for NHS frontline workers and patients – in doing so he put his TRACERx lung cancer research programme on hold, and converted his lab over to COVID-19.
Other scientists, clinicians, trialists and statisticians are volunteering too – helping to set up COVID-19 trials for vaccines, therapeutics and drug-repurposing studies.
Read more: COVID-19 – fighting viruses with viruses
Our research nurses have gone to support the NHS’s vital life-saving efforts, as well as supporting cancer patients where they can. Their efforts, and those of others from Southampton to Cambridge, Manchester to Glasgow and everything in between, will save lives.
It’s inspiring to see the cancer research community united with other scientists across the country in their efforts. We’re even engaging our international community of scientists through our Grand Challenge research programme.
On top of this, we’re working hard to provide ongoing support and information to everyone affected by cancer. Because, despite this crisis, people still need treatment and they still need care.
We’re supporting people affected by cancer with information, through the helpline staffed by our brilliant nurses, and by working with the NHS and Public Health England to ensure standard of care can be maintained as best as possible.
We are also monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on cancer patients in the mid-term, in order that we can help the NHS recover quickly, and pick up cancer services as rapidly as possible when this is over.
It’s inspiring to see so many come together from so many different fields at this time. Even more so at a time when we’re forced to make funding cuts to our life-saving work.
This is undoubtedly the biggest crisis the charity has faced in recent history.
It’s hit our fundraising through shop closures, stopping events, and reducing the value of our investments. Like all charities, we have reserves, but we would burn through them quickly if we didn’t act.
This has, of course, led to tough decisions being made – to defer funding rounds and cut live research grants. Our institutes’ and existing response-mode funding will be cut by 5–10% and our centres and wider infrastructure by up to 20% this year.
Our scientific community have responded with total understanding and huge support – all credit to them for that.
And within the charity, our teams of talented fundraisers – supported by people across the organisation, from tech to HR to finance – are working to come up with creative ways to fundraise so our vital work can continue.
We must remain optimistic in the face of this pandemic. The charity has seen dark times before. The photo below is of some of the founding members of Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) – one of Cancer Research UK’s forerunners – stood on the steps of the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Five years after this photo was taken, the First World War began.
The staff of ICRF saw through this tragic world event, and another world war 20 years later. I’m sure many people at the time wondered about the charity’s future and worried about the loss of scientific momentum they had helped to create.
But their tenacity and creativity helped to build the Cancer Research UK we know today – one the most successful cancer research organisations in the world, with an incredible track record of scientific progress and patient impact.
Today, we are the custodians of this great organisation. And while there will be some difficult choices ahead, I believe the tenacity, creativity and resourcefulness of the Cancer Research UK team will mean we come out more united than ever.
Today our researchers are helping to beat COVID-19 so that ‘tomorrow’ we can get back to beating cancer. And I know that everyone involved with the charity is doing the same.
Iain Foulkes is the executive director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK
If you have questions about cancer, you can talk to our nurses Monday to Friday, 9-5pm, on freephone 0808 800 4040.
- COVID-19: Fighting viruses with viruses
- Protecting our future by taking action now: why we’re making cuts to our research funding
- COVID-19: An open letter to cancer researchers
- Testing for COVID-19 at the Francis Crick Institute
- Coronavirus and cancer – latest updates
- Opinion: ‘Today our researchers are helping to beat COVID-19 so that ‘tomorrow’ we can get back to beating cancer’
- COVID-19: Fighting viruses with viruses
- COVID-19: The Cancer Research UK scientists manufacturing PPE
- COVID-19: The cancer experts lending their tech to the search for a treatment
- COVID-19: The Lighthouse Labs leading the way for COVID-19 testing in the UK
- COVID-19: Keeping cancer patients on clinical trials
Dorothy Robinson April 16, 2020
Well Done with all the work you do for the greater good of everyone.wishing you every success in finding a vaccine and antibody detection .Fund raiser North East area
Mrs C Harris April 16, 2020
You are doing a most fantastic job and I am proud to be British. We will win in the end with your wonderful team of scientists.
Lynn bulger April 14, 2020
I think it is an amazing what cruk are doing it is very tough time s I’m just a privileged employee of cruk and proud to be I wish you all the luck and am sure you will be if invaluable help to this horrible virus
Margaret Davis April 14, 2020
Is it possible for Cancer UK to join up with the very large pharmaceutical companies to develop a vaccination and treatment medication for patients?
Philip Loakes April 14, 2020
Great work I feel honoured to be a supporter during this difficult time, we shall overcome Covid 19.
Helping hand April 13, 2020
If a person with covid 19 had all there blood blasted by uv light and cleand by a mild non harmful soap would kill covid 19 its easy in theory bud I think its worth the risk convert dialysis machine into UV blasting and safely use soap to break it up would work it worked when I ran a simulation but I used everyday siap
Helping hand April 13, 2020
If a person with covid 19 had all there blood blasted by uv light and cleans by a soap would kill covid 19
paula April 12, 2020
As a supporter of CRUK i am happy for any research or any money I donate to go wherever it is needed> Thank you to all Researchers, Scientists and our wonderful NHS for there Dedication and hard work to save lives xxxxx
Barbara Lynes April 11, 2020
Thank you for this most informative information absolutely brilliant to know how your teams are involved even though your efforts mean many strands of ongoing research have been suspended. I hope the public will get to know of this and come together to support your loss of income.
Patrick April 9, 2020
I applaud the dedication of those researchers, scientists, nurses etc who have diverted to work to support the needs of the COVID-19 pandemic but they are funded through donations to support cancer research. Is the government compensating CRUK for this resource? I am currently fundraising and I’d like to be able to tell supporters where their money is actually going. Thanks
Patrick April 7, 2020
I fully understand why CRUK has responded this way and I am generally supportive. However as a fundraiser for CRUK I’d like to know if the government is paying CRUK for converting their cancer labs to testing hubs and for setting up drug trials?
Katie Roberts April 8, 2020
Thanks for your question about funding COVID-19 research. Discovering ground-breaking treatments and life-saving biological advances for people with cancer is our core aim. And where it’s safe to do so, certain trials are continuing. But in a time of global crisis, the scientific community must come together to help as many people as possible. We have resources like labs, equipment and amazingly skilled scientists that can help to tackle coronavirus and put an end to this sooner. The sooner we can beat coronavirus the sooner we can resume our live-saving research.
If our clinical staff have gone to work for the NHS full time, we expect their salaries for this period will be covered by the NHS. You can read more about this on our website.
Katie, Cancer Research UK