Professors Sergio Quezada and Gerard Evan reveal how they’re navigating their vital work through the pandemic and why supporters will play a key role in getting research back on track.
“It was an opportunity for learning. An opportunity for re-evaluation. And an opportunity for planning.” Professor Sergio Quezada has taken a characteristically glass-half-full approach to lockdown life. “I think we would have been crazy not to use this opportunity to take a deep breath, finish pending analyses and really think.”
Sergio’s lab at University College London is part of the Cancer Research UK City of London Centre, a world-leading hub for biotherapeutics – treatments that are produced by, involve or manipulate living cells. “We want to understand how the immune system engages with cancer and why that engagement fails to protect someone against the disease,” he explains. “We then use that information to design new therapies.”
Fortunately, many of Sergio’s team’s experiments were completed just before the lockdown so they have spent the time analysing the results and preparing for publication remotely. But Sergio has serious concerns about the longer-term financial impact on his lab. “We will continue paying their salaries – that’s essential – but the timing of the grant keeps on advancing, which is a constant worry. Will we be able to deliver everything we planned to deliver on that grant in the amount of time we’ll have left?”
Meanwhile at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, Professor Gerard Evan has been lucky enough to continue with some of his experiments throughout the lockdown. His lab is looking to create therapies that target the mutations that hack into the normal rebuilding processes after injury or infection to form a tumour. “We’ve not started new experiments, but we’ve been able to continue existing ones because we use animal models,” he explains. “If we shut the models down, it could take a year or two to pick them back up, so it’s really important to keep that work going.”
Supporting the frontline
Despite continuing with their vital cancer research as best they can, both Sergio and Gerard’s teams have been drafted in to fight COVID-19. “All of my clinical fellows have postponed their PhDs to help on the frontline, which I think is the most incredible thing ever,” says Sergio, whose lab also donated all the personal protective equipment they had, including masks, gloves and gowns.
In Cambridge, Gerard’s department has around eight groups working on COVID-19 research funded by a variety of organisations. “I have to personally approve the safety and management of each of those programmes, including appropriate social distancing,” he says. “Some are looking at the virus’ genome and what it’s binding to, which might help us find ways to prevent it from replicating. Other groups are working on antibodies and tests for people with the virus or those who have had it and recovered.”
Getting back to beating cancer
In his role as chair of Cancer Research UK’s Science Funding Committee, Gerard is also responsible for the oversight, development and funding of a large chunk of our research budget. And with a 20-25% decline in our income expected this year – and current losses of £15m-£20m per month – he is very concerned about the difficult decisions that lay ahead. “Even before COVID-19, we sometimes had to decline really excellent applications. So going forward, it’s going to be tough. As researchers, we’ll need to ask ourselves, if my funding is cut, what am I going to do to make sure I’m as productive and effective a researcher as I was before?”
Sergio is also worried about securing funding in the future. “Before COVID-19, the UK was an incredible place to do cancer research: the funding, the vibe, the people, the cross-talk between disciplines. And in great part, that’s because of the contribution of donors and funders to Cancer Research UK. I just hope that people realise how important their donations have been and will continue to be – not only for a project or for a particular cancer, but for the whole research community.”
Reports from the British Medical Journal and elsewhere warn that the pandemic will leave the British medical research landscape an uncertain place. At Cancer Research UK, despite doing all we can to reduce our operational costs, we’ve had to cut funding by £44m and may need to make further, deeper cuts. Given that we fund almost 50% of all cancer research in the UK, this reduction could have a devastating impact on progress against cancer.
“The importance of Cancer Research UK to the funding of cancer research in general is absolutely fundamental,” says Gerard. “There’s only one thing we know for certain about researching cancer – if you don’t do it, you’ll never find cures for it. So I would say to people, hang in there for us. Continue to support us. This is the time when cancers will be beaten and millions of cancer patients will be saved. But we need your help to find our way out of this situation. Stick with us and we’ll get through this together.”