Research will bring us back together

How will coronavirus affect cancer research?

26th June 2020

Pressing pause on our daily routine during lockdown was necessary to keep us and our families safe. And, in the long run, we know that research will conquer coronavirus and bring us back together. But as research into coronavirus races ahead, cancer research is falling behind. If you are reading this, we know you’ll be concerned about the impact on cancer research. We are too.

The Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC) has forecast a sector-wide shortfall in UK research investment ranging from £252m - £368m in 2020-2021. As a charity that funds lifesaving cancer research, we have many concerns about what that will mean for cancer patients in the future. In a recent blog post our Chief Executive, Dr Helen Rippon, discussed in detail the need for cancer research to remain a priority - even in the middle of coronavirus chaos.

What can we do to support research and researchers during this time? How will we find the funds to make sure projects continue once the pandemic is over? Can we keep new ideas coming under constraint? First, we must understand the scale and scope of the problem.

Labs on lockdown

Schools and universities worldwide have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. By April 2020, over 180 countries had announced nationwide school closures – affecting over 90% of the world’s student population. Universities and their associated research institutes are where most of the world’s cancer research happens. Right now, we are funding 71 projects across 56 universities and research institutes worldwide. These closures mean labs, like us, are on lockdown.

This problem is two-fold. Firstly, scientists - quite simply - can no longer conduct experiments. Cancer research is now on hold until the pandemic is over. No new cures can be started. Progress towards kinder, more effective treatments halted. Sadly, though, whilst research has stopped, cancer in its many forms, has not.

Secondly, ongoing experiments have been lost as labs closed quickly with no time to prepare, leaving mass research waste. The financial cost and long-term impact of this lost research is potentially devastating to scientists, patients and cancer research funders like us.

Compromised clinical trials

The effect of the pandemic on healthcare systems around the world means there is a real risk to planned and ongoing clinical trials testing new cancer drugs, meaning delays in reaching patients with kinder, more effective treatments.

As doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals are diverted to the coronavirus crisis there will be a strain placed on the workforce available to support clinical trials. On 19th March the NIHR Clinical Research Network in the UK announced it was pausing the set-up of any new or ongoing clinical studies at NHS sites that are not related to coronavirus, focusing instead on frontline NHS services during the pandemic.

Scientists are people too

Even if universities do stay open, many researchers won’t be able to work. Like cancer, coronavirus doesn’t discriminate and, like us, scientists may fall ill too. If they must be quarantined because they are sick, then research simply stops. Many people involved in cancer research are also clinicians – doctors and consultants who are being redeployed to help battle the pandemic on the frontline.

Cancelled conferences cuts cancer collaboration

The global ban on mass gatherings and the shutdown of international travel has forced the cancellation of scientific conferences for the foreseeable future, key events that allow scientists to discuss cutting-edge research and start new collaborations – the very conversations that spark bold ideas and start cancer cures.

But in this haze of uncertainty and ‘what ifs’, there may be a silver lining. Planned conferences have moved online and if successful, may open new opportunities for researchers to attend, allowing more experts to share good practice and bold ideas than ever before.

Keep safe and just keep going

These are troubling times, and we want to make sure that we are focused on limiting the potential impact on the work that we exist to do – funding bold new ideas around the world that start new cures for cancer. As Dr Marc Raaijmakers, our researcher in the Netherlands said, “we’ve just got to keep going”. And that’s exactly what we’ll do – because whilst this pandemic tears us apart, research will bring us back together.

But we can't do it alone - we need your help more than ever to start bold research projects and new cancer cures around the world.