Making cancer the ‘Big C’ again

Cancer outcomes could improve if we learn lessons from pandemic to accelerate translation of research into practice

Two people holding hands

We all know someone who has experienced the sting of a cancer diagnosis =

The UK has seen a series of ‘big Cs’ embed themselves in the national consciousness over the past three years, from COVID-19 to the cost-of-living crisis.

A lot was made, including by myself, when COVID-19 overtook cancer as the biggest health condition we talked about and experienced. In the wake of the initial response to the pandemic, cancer specialists like myself took stock of how healthcare and biomedical research had fundamentally shifted. However, while COVID-19 has undoubtedly been the new ‘Big C’, we cannot forget that one in two people will be affected by cancer in their lifetime.

COVID-19 reshaped our response to a health crisis, how we mobilise research teams, funding and clinical practice as a result of a threat to the health of our loved ones and our way of life. We demonstrated the capacity to develop safe and effective vaccines in ‘lightning-fast’ time, and studies such as the CATALYST trial began quickly testing potential treatments for COVID infection in hospitals around the country over the course of a single year.

The sting of rising inflation will affect us all, but we all know someone who has experienced the sting of a cancer diagnosis."

Pamela Kearns, Professor of Clinical Paediatric Oncology, University of Birmingham

Compassion ran through the willingness to cut unnecessarily long lead times for funding bids, delivery of clinical trials, clinical approval for drugs and vaccines, and for urgent changes to public policy.

Cost-of-living has taken over as the latest and greatest ‘Big C’ to dominate our national discussions and sit at the sharpest end of public policy. The sting of rising inflation will affect us all, but we all know someone who has experienced the sting of a cancer diagnosis. COVID-19 focussed a spotlight on unacceptable health inequalities across the UK, which also affect cancer outcomes and are likely to be made worse by the current financial crisis.

Cancer continues to be one of the biggest healthcare challenges facing the UK. More than 450 people die every day from cancer, and the Department for Health and Social Care recognised in its recently-published plan for patients that cancer patients are among those with greatest need. Earlier this year, the Government published its 10-year cancer plan - recognising that COVID-19 provided a template for what is possible with targeted, collective effort.

CEO of Cancer Research UK Michelle Mitchell launched their new strategy in March, saying:

“For 20 years [Cancer Research UK] has been making discoveries and saving countless lives. But we want to go further and faster. The world is on the brink of a revolution in our understanding of cancer and we intend to make the most of this opportunity.”

As Director of both the Institute of Cancer and Genomic Sciences, and the Cancer Research UK Clinical Trials Unit at the University of Birmingham, I can say that we wholeheartedly support Michelle Mitchell’s call for ‘further and faster’.

Undaunted by the pandemic, cancer research has continued apace both in terms of spending and publications. Research such as the TRAPEZE trial, which led to updated clinical guidance for advanced prostate cancers, the EE2012 trial, which defined standard care for children and young people with Ewing Sarcoma and development of a urine test to detect bladder cancer, sparing patients multiple uncomfortable invasive tests.

We need to go further and faster to enable trials such as the Lung Matrix trial to be rapidly translated into practice – ensuring that the best therapies for lung cancer can be adopted as quickly as possible.

Through our partnership with the Precision Medicine Health Technology Accelerator on the new Birmingham Health Innovation Campus, we are going further and faster in translating trials into practice.

Through innovative collaborations with industry, we are building on the Lung Matrix trial design to deliver academic platform trials that are ‘fit for filing’. This will ensure any successful new drug trial in any disease – not just cancer – can contribute to its marketing licence and be eligible for consideration by NICE.

‘Further and faster’ will ensure that the latest technology in electronic healthcare records can automatically flag patients suitable for clinical trials so that more people can take part in transformative research.

We must continue to find the capacity and compassion to make cancer a priority. Cancer isn’t waiting for COVID-19 to go away.

Pamela Kearns, Professor of Clinical Paediatric Oncology, University of Birmingham