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Discussing the dual challenge of COVID-19 and cancer in our latest webinar

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by Cancer Research UK | Philanthropy and partnerships

11 June 2020

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Mountains made of tiny dots sit against a blue background. Overlaid text reads 'Rising to the Challenge'

In the latest from our Rising to the Challenge webinar series, our chief executive, Michelle Mitchell OBE, spoke with our chief clinician, Professor Charlie Swanton, and chief scientist, Professor Karen Vousden, about how the Cancer Research UK community is simultaneously addressing the challenges posed by COVID-19 and cancer. Here, Eddie Bowers captures the highlights from the discussion.

Charlie is currently leading the Francis Crick Institute’s efforts to test NHS staff and patients for coronavirus. “We’re now routinely swabbing about 1,000 people a day and reporting those tests back using a mobile app,” he explained. In just seven weeks, they have completed around 22,500 tests for staff and patients across north London. Charlie has also been working alongside Cancer Research UK’s policy team to campaign for more COVID-19-protected cancer hubs, which will minimise the risk of patients becoming infected while receiving chemotherapy. 

Karen’s work focuses on understanding more about tumour suppressors, which help protect us from developing cancer. Recently, however, she’s been working to understand the impact of COVID-19 on funding for cancer research. “In addition to having a devastating direct effect on people, this pandemic is also having a catastrophic effect on funding for cancer research,” she said. “We’re desperately worried about what we will lose.”

Despite originating from an organism comprising only 15 genes, COVID-19 had caused more than 386,788 deaths worldwide by 3 June 2020, when our webinar aired. Cancer, on the other hand, encompasses more than 200 diseases, with hundreds of genes known to play a role, and is responsible for more than nine million deaths worldwide every year. This means that while the research community must pivot to support national and international efforts against COVID-19, the global cancer research endeavour must also be protected.

The cost of cuts

During the discussion, Michelle asked Charlie and Karen what impact they anticipated COVID-19 would have on the future of cancer research. “I think my biggest concern is our trainees,” Charlie replied. “Our future cancer care, drug development and translational research depends on our talented workforce. I wouldn’t be here without the support of Cancer Research UK and the grants that have allowed me to dedicate my time to cancer research. There are many, like me, who have similar passion and deserve similar support. I’m concerned we may lose a generation of cancer research scientists who could make the discoveries of the future.”

Karen also worries about a loss in momentum for cancer research. “We will lose outstanding researchers, fail to train the next generation and miss the chance to trial and test new therapies in the clinic,” she explained. “All of this will have a long-term impact on cancer patients.” Faced with the daunting task of deciding where to make the necessary cuts, Karen highlighted what makes the decision so difficult: “We have never funded any research that is not of the highest quality, so any funding reduction will slice away from something important.”

Together, we’re resilient

Despite the damaging effects, Charlie and Karen agreed that the pandemic is offering valuable learnings for the future. “Establishing clinical trials and bringing new therapies to patients can be done much more quickly than we thought,” said Karen. “If we can streamline the systems and apply that in the future, we can more efficiently help patients.” Charlie agreed, arguing that we shouldn’t accept the previous levels of regulation and governance: “COVID-19 trials can be set up quickly and once we come out of this, we should expect nothing less for cancer.”

Looking to the future, Karen showed confidence in the resilience of our research community: “I really believe passion and drive will allow us to continue to make progress. We have been through financial hard times before and survived – when funds run low, we simply have to think harder.”

She added: “We’re indebted to the people who fund us. The generosity is always astonishing and humbling. Together, we’re resilient, and I believe that we will weather this storm.”

At Cancer Research UK, we fund almost half of all cancer research across the country – but due to an anticipated 20-25% drop in our fundraising income, we’ve had to make significant cuts to our research spend. But cancer doesn’t stop, even in a pandemic, and neither will we. It’s clear that in the face of this global crisis, our research has never been more important.

by Edward Bowers, philanthropy communications executive