Cancer research derailed by nearly two years due to COVID-19, scientists say

LONDON — For many people around the world, the 2020s feel like “lost” years so far. While science may be at the forefront of the pandemic, scientists say other fields of study are falling behind. A new report even warns that advances in cancer research are suffering due to COVID-19. With less funding and quarantine mandates, a team from the Institute of Cancer Research in London believe some cancer breakthroughs are now two years behind schedule.

“The coronavirus pandemic has posed the greatest threat to cancer research in generations,” Professor Paul Workman says in a release.

COVID restrictions are forcing some scientists to go to their labs at night in order to continue progress. Almost 30 percent of scientists have been starting shifts in labs outside contracted hours. This includes weekend shifts and weekdays between the hours of midnight and 8am or 8pm to midnight.

With social distancing rules in place, researchers have had to limit the number of people who can occupy laboratories. They’re even having to avoid commuter peaks while taking public transportation.

The ICR team says without funding, advances in fighting cancer may face even further delays than the current estimates of 17 months to two years.

COVID is eating into the budget for fighting cancer

During the pandemic, ICR has had research grants from charities cut by around $11.1 million. That’s a reduction of about 20 percent in total annual funding from charity grants. The ICR has also received notice that further cuts in grants are on the way.

“I now fear that when our researchers predicted in the autumn that advances for cancer patients could be delayed by nearly 18 months, it was an underestimate,” Prof. Workman adds. “Without extra funding to address the effects of the pandemic and plug holes in research budgets, cancer patients could end up waiting an extra two years to benefit from research discoveries.”

“It’s great that science is now helping us get out of lockdown and begin to return to normal, but unfortunately cancer hasn’t been waiting for us – it remains as big a challenge as ever,” the Chief Executive of ICR, London continues. “We need as much support as possible to ensure that our research can make up lost ground in finding the new treatments that will make a difference for patients. Cancer won’t wait.”

“When we had to shut down our lab in the first lockdown, we thought the disruption would just be for a few weeks,” Professor Jessica Downs, ICR’s deputy head of cancer biology, explains. “If someone had told me then that, more than a year later, we’d still not be back to normal, I’d have been gutted. It has been essential to adapt our working patterns to ensure we could still be productive.”

“Science has always been a bit of a 24/7 job sometimes involving coming in overnight or on a weekend, but this is now very much more the norm,” Downs adds. “The team has adapted terrifically, but we’re still probably losing about a day a week each.”

Pandemic cutbacks impact cancer patients as well

The setbacks in cancer research don’t just affect scientists, they hurt patients too. Sue Duncombe’s husband enrolled in a clinical trial after receiving a prostate cancer diagnosis in 2005.

“My husband, Philip, was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 52,” Duncombe says. “He had surgery, hormone treatment and chemotherapy, but the cancer became resistant to the treatment, and it spread. Philip was becoming more and more unwell, and at this point we thought we were out of options. But then he was lucky to be enrolled in a trial of a new drug, abiraterone, which the ICR discovered.”

“This drug gave us almost an extra year of quality time together, which we made the most of with family and friends. When a drug has such an impact on a patient’s life, it’s not just that person that benefits, but everyone around them,” the cancer patient’s wife adds. “That drug is now used routinely for men like Philip. Without that research, there are many men who wouldn’t have hope for a longer and better future.”

“Delays to research means delays to treatment advances, and delays to improvements in survival rates – research gives cancer patients hope,” she concludes.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that over 1.8 million Americans received a cancer diagnosis in 2020. More than 600,000 of those patients will likely die from the disease. By 2040, researchers expect the number of cancer diagnoses to rise to nearly 30 million worldwide each year.

SWNS writer Joe Morgan contributed to this report.

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