2020 Research Review
At the beginning
It was early January, and we were just settling back into the office with some exciting plans ahead for 2020 when, Dr Beth Routley, our Scientific Officer, innocuously announced that “the BBC has reported that a new virus has emerged in China”. This first report occupied no more than a few paragraphs on the BBC Health Pages. Little did we know that within a few short weeks, the world would be plunged into a state of crisis not seen for over 80 years, with every waking moment occupied by the pandemic as countries struggled to contain the virus. Despairingly, rates of infections and deaths in this country, quickly mirrored those seen in other parts of Europe, as the devastating global effects of the virus quickly unfolded before our very eyes. The gravity of the situation soon hit home, and our shops and head office were forced to shut as we entered a national lockdown. With all University laboratories closed by the end of March, and new patient recruitment to our funded clinical trials promptly stopped to take pressure of the NHS, we soon learned we were in for the toughest year of our 50 year history.
Lockdown and cancers studies postponed
As the NHS readied itself for an influx of COVID patients, other parts of the health service adjusted to mitigate risk of infection and re-direct resources to help bolster the front line. While needed, this has come at a great cost in other areas, with cancer services severely disrupted. All screening programmes in Wales were halted and patient recruitment to clinical cancer trials stopped. In Wales, the number of referrals for suspected cancer fell by greater than 70%, and new ways of working meant further disruption in secondary care. To date it is estimated that thousands of patients have not engaged with cancer services, compared to the same time period in other years. The Wales Cancer Network believe it will take 2-3 years before the service is operating normally again. As part of the Wales Cancer Alliance, we have called on Welsh Government to create a cancer recovery plan for Wales, similar to what England and Scotland have produced. Professor Tom Crosby, Head of the Wales Cancer Network, has stated that we need to embrace new innovation and do things differently as we emerge from the pandemic. Through strategic research funding, Cancer Research Wales can provide Wales with some of the solutions needed to build a better and more resilient future for its cancer services. Elsewhere, we had to act swiftly and diligently to ensure all our existing research projects were protected. We worked with each University and NHS Board where Cancer Research Wales funds research, and where needed, provided extra support to ensure a successful completion of all projects. While we had to postpone new work, we are pleased to end the year knowing that our radiotherapy clinical trials are once again recruiting new patients. Many of our researchers experienced changes to their work as a result of the pandemic.
New project funding
Towards the end of the year, we were able to get back to doing what we do best – and that’s funding world-class research here in Wales. Two projects were funded from donations given to the Charity for specific purposes. The first project was made possible through the sterling efforts of the Walker family, Monmouth Haberdashers Schools and the wider community, who managed to raise over £100,000 in just over 12 months. The money will be used to fund a PhD studentship in memory of Tom Walker, a young man who tragically lost his life to Acute Myeloid Leukaemia (AML) at the age of 13. This project will be undertaken by Theo Morin under the supervision of Professor Andy Sewell and will look at how the exciting new cancer treatment, called CAR-T therapy, can be used for AML. Tom’s sisters even won a national fundraising award for all their efforts in Tom’s memory.
The second project, made possible by a legacy given by The Ed Evans Foundation, will continue to build towards creating a solid platform of brain tumour research in Wales. The project will be undertaken in the laboratory of Professor Mark Gumbleton and will look to establish unique mini-brains from stem cells taken from patient samples. These models which will be made available to researchers in Wales and across the UK. They better represent the true clinical setting and their 3-dimensional orientation will enable new treatments to be tested in a more accurate way. Both projects are due to start in January 2021, and we can think of no better way to begin a New Year than funding two great initiatives that will continue to serve the people of Wales.
TIC-TOC - Tackling cancer inequalities in Wales
Stark differences in cancer outcomes exist in Wales, with the incidence and mortality of some common cancers, most notably cancers of the bowel and lung, up to 20% greater in some areas compared to others. A strategic aim of Cancer Research Wales is to tackle these inequalities through research. Funding of TIC-TOC – a research study to raise awareness of vague cancer symptoms in areas of high deprivation, and prime GP’s to utilise the Rapid Diagnostic Centres – was one welcome piece of good news in an otherwise difficult spring-time. TIC-TOC has now become a research study of strategic importance for all of Wales, and if successful could see new ways of improving the health seeking behaviour of the Welsh Public.
This year saw Cancer Research Wales become a member of the prestigious NCRI; a partnership of the 20 biggest funders of cancer research in the UK. The NCRI ensures that cancer research is funded in a collaborative and coordinated way, whilst seeking to identify national priority areas that would benefit from research support. The NCRI also provides a platform where the best cancer research is shared internationally, as well as across Britain. We were hoping to attend the annual NCRI conference in Belfast as new members, but the pandemic soon curtailed those plans. The NCRI like everyone else soon adapted and we did attend the first virtual conference in November, where one of our funded projects was selected as a key talk. Dr Rachel Lawrence, based at Swansea University, presented work which looks at a specific mutation on red blood cells that can act as a marker of pre-symptomatic oesophageal cancer and possibly several other cancer types. Cancer Research Wales looks forward to playing an active role in the mission of the NCRI by raising the awareness and increasing the influence of Welsh cancer research across the globe. Equally, we hope to serve as a conduit for bringing world-class research back here to Wales.
Policy work and research evidence
Severe disruption to all clinical pathways across Wales occurred at the commencement of important evidence for both the Medical Research and Cancer Cross Party Groups at the Welsh Assembly. The pandemic exposed further fragilities and inflexibilities in the health care system in Wales and across the UK. However, the crisis also gave the opportunity to quickly share, learn and adopt best practice and introduce new ways of working as departments and systems adapted to ensure patients still received the best possible care. Contributing to the public and political conversation around cancer also became increasingly important to ensure all our stakeholders and beneficiaries remained informed and represented. To support this, we published a number of blogs and statements throughout the year in response to the changes in the world around, identifying both the short-term challenges and long-term opportunities that the Covid-19 pandemic has brought about for the delivery of cancer pathways in Wales. A lot of this information was incorporated into the evidence sessions, and Cancer Research Wales played a significant part by contributing several key documents to these discussions. Also research evidence from our funded projects was presented as ways to future proof cancer diagnostics in primary care, and protect and build medical research capacity in Universities and hospitals across Wales.
In November, we were pleased to appoint our first Policy and Public Affairs Manager. This new, important role will help better embed our research into policy and practice across Wales.
Year ends on a high as the RAMAN blood test scoops top honours for innovation at the 2020 MediWales Awards
For those who have followed our science blogs closely in recent years, it won’t have gone unnoticed how excited we feel about the development of the RAMAN blood test for the early detection of bowel cancer. This year the project scaled new heights by winning the top prize for innovation at the virtual MediWales Awards. A pilot trial of the test in GP surgeries across West Wales showed 40% of all colonoscopies for suspected bowel cancer could be avoided if this simple, cheap and readily accessible test was routinely used at the first point of contact in primary care. As access to colonoscopy is a significant barrier to early bowel cancer diagnosis in Wales, and a major reason behind the poor patient outcomes, the RAMAN test has the ability to transform the bowel cancer pathway. It will allow colonoscopies to be reserved for patients most likely to benefit and lower the age of testing and screening. All of which will improve outcomes for Wales’ second leading cause of cancer death .We look forward to this project breaking more new ground in 2021 as Professors Dean Harris and Peter Dunstan look to position the tests for use within the NHS, with some major hospitals in England also looking to adopt the test, in addition to both primary and secondary care in Wales.
Help us bounce forward into 2021
We thank you all for the support you have provided over the last year, we couldn’t have got this far without you. It’s been a very challenging year indeed, with our income expected to be at least 50% lower than in previous years. It is estimated that the pandemic will set cancer research back by at least 5 years, with other national charities expecting to make significant cuts in what they can provide in the future.
Ann Tate, CEO of Cancer Research Wales says: “In what has been a difficult and challenging year our amazing researchers and clinicians and our wonderful supporters have been our shining stars. It is such good news that our projects are back on track again and we thank the people of Wales who have continued to support us (and them) through donations and fundraising. As a medical research charity, we appreciate the value of vaccines as an important tool for maintaining public health. We understand the hard work and efforts of the scientists and research teams around the world who have brought us the vaccines, which will play a crucial role in defeating the current Covid-19 pandemic. We all look forward to some sort of normality in 2021 and to getting back on track with our funding of world class cancer research.”
To help us, bounce forward into 2021 and to ensure that cancer research in Wales is not left behind, may we kindly ask you to consider donating to our Christmas Appeal if you haven’t had the opportunity to do so. Finally, we wish all our volunteers, supporters and our all our funded researchers a Very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy New Year!