Expert views

What the experts think about the future of cancer research

5th May 2021

The world's largest annual cancer conference (hosted by the American Association for Cancer Research) went ahead online this year despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, sending a clear message for researchers, patients, and clinicians that cancer research continues, no matter what. We caught up with four world-leading researchers who attended to hear what they are most excited about for the future of cancer research.

Dr Lee Wong, cancer researcher at Monash University, Australia

“I hope there will be more research into rare cancers, because for the last 20 years there’s been a lot of emphasis on more common cancers like breast, colon and blood cancers. It would be really good if we can also start focusing on cancers that are rare, like brain, bone and pancreatic cancers. Because when you start looking into rarer cancers, you actually learn more about the biology, which then might help us to treat the more common ones as well.

“Another important area of development is that we are drowning in a lot of genetic data at the moment. We know a lot about the genetics of cancers, now the challenge is to take this knowledge and apply it. I think the urgency now is to not just generate data, but at the same time to think of ways to understand the data a little bit more.”

Dr Manuel Valiente, cancer researcher at CNIO in Madrid, Spain

“Cancers are not solely depending on cancer cells proliferating, but also on the tumour microenvironment. The microenvironment is the normal organ that in principle is doing its normal function. But when the cancer is there, these normal functions are changed so that the microenvironment is no longer serving the person, but serving the cancer. I think this is going to open a new area for developing therapies.

"Another exciting area of cancer research is one we are working on, and that is personalised therapies for cancer applied to metastasis. If you have a metastasis in the bone, we know that there is a survival mechanism that cancer cells need to colonise the bone. And that may be different to how these cells colonise the brain. So in the future, we are going to start seeing therapies that are applied according to where the metastasis is located. The hope is that by developing these new therapies we will be better able to fight cancer.”

Professor Steve Jackson, cancer researcher at the University of Cambridge, UK

“I imagine in the future there will be more personal medicine with patients being aligned to therapies based on prospects for response.

“To my mind, one of the most urgent problems that needs solving in cancer research is finding effective ways to transform fundamental discoveries into new therapeutic arenas – something that will not only require strong basic fundamental biology but also the engagement of clinicians, biotech and pharmaceutical companies.  Understanding and circumventing resistance may also be a big arena for future research.”

Image credit: Jussi Puikkonen/KNAW

Professor Robert Kerbel, cancer researcher at Sunnybrook Research Institute, Canada

“There were some stunning results in terms of survival when you combine antibody therapies. It’s going to be a game changer and it’s being assessed in colorectal cancer, in gastric cancer, in bladder cancer, oesophageal cancer, head and neck cancer…. It could be amazing! I’m very excited about that.

“In dealing with stage 4 metastatic disease I think we still have a long way to go in prolonging survival in a really meaningful way. There’ll be advances for sure – there have been advances in metastatic melanoma, but outside melanoma the advances are still kind of incremental."

“I think that supporters of Worldwide Cancer Research should take heart that the advancements that are occurring now are really unprecedented. Every week there’s a new drug that’s being approved - literally!

“That small donation you make, when it’s combined with a lot of other donations, is really making a difference. That’s the way I look at it.”

Professor Robert Kerbel