Cancer research set back two years due to pandemic disruptions
Lockdowns, lab closures, funding cuts, and delays to ongoing clinical trials have all contributed to cancer research disruptions that may set the field back two years, according to new estimates made by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London.
The COVID-19 global pandemic is far from over, but as we move into a new phase of this crisis some of the broader ripple effects are becoming apparent. In March and April of 2020, as much of the world swiftly moved into lockdown to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus, research labs around the world also shut. Universities closed, clinical trials were paused and many research projects were simply abandoned.
Late in 2020, a statement from the ICR, a world-leading cancer research organization based in London, estimated cancer advances for patients had been delayed by at least 17 months due to disruptions caused by the pandemic. A new statement from the ICR now suggests the problems are far worse than previously anticipated, and research is possibly two years behind prior targets.
“The coronavirus pandemic has posed the greatest threat to cancer research in generations,” says ICR Chief Executive Paul Workman. “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. 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.”
Jessica Downs, a lead researcher at the ICR, says the disruptions to her work were much more profound than she anticipated early in the pandemic. Although her team has dramatically adapted their working patterns they are still nowhere near returning to normal workloads.
“When we had to shut down our lab in the first lockdown, we thought the disruption would just be for a few weeks,” says Downs. “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. The team has adapted terrifically, but we’re still probably losing about a day a week each.”
These kinds of disruptions to ongoing research projects are not isolated to scientists in the United Kingdom. A recent statement from the National Breast Cancer Foundation in Australia noted 90 percent of the leading breast cancer researchers in the country anticipate their research projects to be at least a year behind due to pandemic delays. And this is in Australia, a country that has fared better that most in managing the toll of COVID-19.
These disruptions are not limited to cancer research. Almost all ongoing clinical studies have been affected in some way. Alzheimer’s disease trials, for example, were hit hard in 2020 owing to their participants being in the highest risk groups for severe COVID-19. And although many of these trials found ways to restart over the course of last year, it is unclear how the delays and disruptions have compromised the data.
“There are big questions about how to deal with missing data, what are considerations for the trial statistics, and what adjustments need to be made,” said the Alzheimer Association’s Maria Carrillo to Alzforum last year.
The long-term ripple effects of these delays are difficult to quantify but it is inevitable that in the future some patients will miss out on life-saving medicines due to these research disruptions. Sue Duncombe’s husband Philip was given an extra year of life due to his place in a clinical trial for a prostate cancer drug in 2005.
“That drug is now used routinely for men like Philip,” she explains. “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.”