Opinion: ‘UK cancer research could be set back years by COVID-19. We must act now’
As an organisation whose sole mission is to beat cancer – to ensure that fewer people are diagnosed and those that are can face the future with more confidence – it’s not an announcement we ever wanted to make.
These cuts would undoubtedly set back progress for cancer patients everywhere. To put the figure in context, £150 million is what Cancer Research UK would spend on clinical trials over the next 10 years. £150 million is approximately 35% of our total research spend last year, and a cut like this could mean we have to close some of our sites around the country and leave thousands of early–career scientists unsupported.
Figures like these, which are echoed by medical research charities across the UK, should be enough to ring alarm bells across the sector and for the Government. But the truth is the impact will be much bigger, and much broader, than a single number could ever convey.
Because we don’t just fund over 50% of all publicly funded cancer research in the UK, we’re also a vital part of the country’s scientific ecosystem.
Charities bring innovation and infrastructure to research across the country
The UK is celebrated as a world leader in research and innovation, and one of the reasons for this success is the mix of government, private and charity-funded research.
Medical research charities help to drive progress by funding early-stage, high risk research that wouldn’t otherwise be supported. And the insights that our researchers generate feed the pipeline of pharma companies all over the world. In fact, Cancer Research UK is the second biggest licensor of cancer drugs in the world, after MD Anderson in Texas.
Take vemurafenib for example, a targeted cancer drug that by mid-2018 had been used to treat over 50,000 patients with malignant melanoma worldwide. This drug came from early research funded by Cancer Research UK and other charity partners, which revealed a particular mutation that cropped up in a lot of melanomas. The mutation was patented as a target for drug screens and patient tests. All 5 named inventors were UK-based scientists.
As well as funding individual research projects, we also contribute a great deal to the research and innovation sector – through our work and our people.
We’ve built a vibrant platform for cancer research across the UK through our Institutes and Clinical Trials Unit – funding 50% of the cancer research infrastructure in the UK.
Our long-term investment in state-of-the-art facilities has helped to create a thriving network of research at 90 institutions in over 40 UK towns and cities.
This infrastructure is part of what makes the UK a key player on the world stage, and an attractive place for cancer experts to bring their skills. It’s this infrastructure that’s at risk if we don’t get the support we need and, at a time when the Government is working to rebalance research investment across the UK, it’s an infrastructure that would be hard to recreate in our absence.
Our ambitions rely on our dedicated researchers
But while our centres and clinical trials network are crucial pieces of our success, they’re brought to life by the scientists who work within them. We fund over 4,000 researchers in labs and hospitals across the UK. And as well as world leading experts, we’re helping to train the next generation of scientists, supporting over 500 PhD students, 160 fellows and 600 post-doctoral researchers.
With COVID-19 delaying cancer research, diagnosis and treatment, these scientists have played a vital role in the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, volunteering in COVID-19 testing facilities, redeploying to the front line and using their skills and expertise to help tackle the virus.
And with the Chancellor highlighting research and innovation as a road to economic recovery, our researchers will also play a role in helping to rebuild the economy. Through our entrepreneurial programmes, we help the cancer research community to translate their discoveries into products and launch spinout companies that will improve the lives of people with cancer. Cancer Research UK has formed more than 40 spinout companies so far, which have collectively raised around £1 billion in third party investment and created thousands of jobs and many new treatments over the years.
We’re proud to be a part of the UK’s research and innovation sector, but we will never forget why we’re here, and what we’re here to do. Cancer Research UK exists because of the generosity of our supporters and the public’s commitment to our ambition of improving cancer diagnosis, treatment and care. And it’s a responsibility we take very seriously.
We fund research that will accelerate progress towards our goal of beating cancer. We’ve identified cancer types where progress has been slower – lung, pancreatic, brain and oesophageal cancers – and increased our efforts and our funding in these areas.
It’s this kind of patient-centric, strategic research investment that’s at risk because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
We must act now
We’ve written before about how medical research charities are slipping through the cracks of Government support. And with COVID-19’s impact on medical research charities still unfolding, we need the Government to rethink its strategy.
Our mission is clear – to beat cancer. And with the impact of COVID-19 being keenly felt by people with cancer, it’s never been more important.
We and other medical research charities urgently need support to ensure we can continue to support today and tomorrow’s patients and contribute to economic growth. This is why we’re working with other medical research charities to ask for targeted financial support from the Government, through a Government-charity co-investment scheme for life sciences research.
If you believe, prime minister, in improving cancer survival, if you believe in ensuring the UK retains its position as a global scientific power, if you believe in protecting infrastructure and our talented people, you absolutely must commit to supporting the UK’s research charities at a time of our need and give us time to recover and get research back on track.
Together we can still beat cancer, but we can’t do it alone. We’ve partnered with government for many years, and we now need their support more than ever if we are to restore the UK as a leader in cancer research.
Michelle Mitchell is the chief executive officer of Cancer Research UK