Daniel Bridge, Policy Manager at Cancer Research UK gives consideration to how science has contributed significantly to cancer research.
Medical research provides the foundation of modern medicine; it is vital to tackling the health challenges of the future. We know this because of the remarkable results research has produced to date. Forty years ago patients’ chances of surviving cancer was 1 in 4; now because of the advances driven by research 2 in 4 survive cancer. The burden of cancer continues to rise nationally and globally. In the UK, more than 330,000 patients are diagnosed with cancer each year. As the population continues to live longer into old age we are expecting 425,000 patients to be diagnosed annually by 2030.
Our ambition at Cancer Research UK is to accelerate progress through more research and see three-quarters of patients surviving the disease within the next 20 years.
The UK has traditionally been a powerhouse in terms of research. Considering our size and relatively modest investment in both public and private R&D we punch well above our weight in terms of research output and international recognition. From the discovery of DNA to leading mapping the human genome UK science has contributed significantly to the overall understanding of human health and delivered benefits to patients.
But research isn’t a production line simply churning out breakthrough after breakthrough, delivering health gains at a consistent rate. Taking the findings and discoveries that are achieved in a lab, and translating them into treatments that help patients, is at the heart of medical research and is complex. Naturally sciences of biology and chemistry lend themselves most closely to understanding biological systems and changes that take place in the body on a molecular level.
However we now know that relying solely on these traditional fields of science is no longer enough to continue to deliver progress on cancer. Most funders including Cancer Research UK are exploring models that include disciplines such as physics, engineering, materials science, mathematics and population sciences, to tap into their potential to deliver innovation by bringing multiple perspectives to bear on the cancer problem.
This has happened before. While physicists knew how to bend a beam of radiation, it took engineers, biologists and doctors working together to turn this into the radiotherapy machines that are so vital in treating cancer.
As we move forward into an era of genetic medicine it’s clear that we need to draw in expertise from mathematicians and computer scientists to analyse vast quantities of data. Being able to process genetic data fast enough to assist clinical decision making will move us closer to personalised medicine where treatments are tailored to individual patients.
While organisations such as Cancer Research UK already fund this type of research more needs to be done to ensure that very different disciplines actively collaborate and are able to focus their efforts on a single problem. We have recently launched a new multi-disciplinary scheme to further encourage team working in this area.
Collaboration between researchers and different parts of the medical research/healthcare infrastructure drive forward new discoveries by sharing expertise and ideas. Having a collaborative healthcare system is critical to our success. Unlike other countries in the NHS we have an entire patient population under a single health system that could potentially participate in a variety of forms of research.
The problems lie with ensuring everyone within the NHS has the time and space to do research. And it’s understandable why research can quite easily be seen as an extraneous activity on top of a workload for doctors and nurses who are already overburdened. But without research in the past we would not have the treatments we have today. We need to find ways to ensure that research is interwoven into all forms of care to make sure it doesn’t fall off the agenda of anyone in the health services.
Hard-wiring research into the NHS has additional benefits. For example, over the past few years, Cancer Research UK studies alone have leveraged over £300m of free drugs given by pharmaceutical companies. This gives us an opportunity to understand the effects of drugs on particular groups of patients and opens doors to new treatment regimes.
While the importance of clinical research cannot be overstated it isn’t the only important piece of the puzzle to beating cancer. Cancer Research UK, for example, funds studies that determine the lifestyle factors that cause cancer and explores ways to diagnosis patients earlier.
It is this multipronged approach that gives us better understanding of all forms of prevention, diagnosis and treatments that are driving up cancer survival rates. Investment across the research pathway and across different scientific disciplines needs to be maintained and increased to unlock the potential within the UK.
Cancer Research UK