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Research will bring us back together

Why cancer research must remain a priority in the middle of coronavirus chaos

25th June 2020

Life as we know it has changed. For the last few months businesses have closed, we’ve not been able to visit loved ones and we’ve been missing out on the simple things we used to take for granted. As the pandemic took hold, countries all over the world ordered people to work from home unless they held a job considered by the government as essential.

In the UK, this included frontline health and social care workers, education and childcare staff, and those that keep society running - from the people getting food to supermarket shelves, to those that look after our communities. These are all, in my opinion, absolutely essential.

But, as Chief Executive of a cancer research charity, I find myself debating whether some jobs were missed off the list.

Chief Executive Dr Helen Rippon

What about cancer research? Shouldn’t that also be considered essential work?

Millions of people around the world depend on it, and will do in the future, so shouldn’t we be doing what we can to keep it going? In the UK, cancer services have been hit hard. The decision to treat a cancer patient during an infectious disease outbreak is not easy, and many cancer treatments impact the patient’s immune system and make them vulnerable to infection.

Fewer people are being referred to the hospital with suspected cancer symptoms because people are avoiding visits to their GPs. Ultimately, people aren’t getting the early diagnoses or timely treatments they so desperately need. But we can’t forget about lab-based research.

In order to continue making breakthroughs to save lives and stop suffering, cancer research must remain a priority.

The research journey is a long one and it can take up to 20 years for a bold idea to lead to new treatments used in hospitals. But with 1 in 2 people diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime, these new breakthroughs offer hope for the future. Any delays when it comes to starting new cancer cures could be the difference between life and death for many more people in years to come.

The long-term consequences might not be visible now, but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t there, or that they won’t have a real impact on people with cancer in the future.

When the crisis hit and we started hearing that labs were being shut down and lifesaving research put on hold, we contacted our researchers to find out what this meant for them. One response that really struck me came from Professor Neta Erez in Tel Aviv.

Neta told me that in Israel the government had put academic research on their list of essential work.

That means that since the crisis began, she has still been able to continue doing her lab work, though some necessary limitations have been put in place for the health and safety of the team. So, while the total amount of research being conducted in Neta’s lab has decreased, they have still been able to make essential progress in the quest to understand how cancer works.

This is in stark contrast to the UK and other countries which ordered all research to be paused unless it related to the novel coronavirus. While it is undoubtedly important that we avoid unnecessary contact with other people to reduce the spread of the virus, could we not also have found a way to allow cancer researchers back in the lab to carry on working?

Research is what will save the lives of mothers, fathers, daughters and sons who will be hit by a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime.

The more delays to this research as a result of the ongoing pandemic, the more chance we have of losing bright ideas that could one day lead to new cures for cancer.

As we start to reimagine what our ‘new normal’ looks like across the UK (and across the world), we must make sure that cancer research is at the top of the agenda.

- Dr Helen Rippon, Worldwide Cancer Research Chief Executive

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