COVID-19 Crisis Delaying Cancer Advances Nearly 18 Months, Say Researchers

Cancer research has suffered delays of nearly 18 months because of COVID-19 measures.
Brad Bergan

Cancer researchers are afraid advances for patients of the oft-terminal disease may suffer delays of nearly one and a half years — because of the massive reallocation of global resources to fight the COVID-19 crisis, according to a recent survey shared in a blog post shared on the Institute of Cancer Research's website.


COVID-19 crisis delaying cancer research nearly 18 months, say scientists

The scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in London told the survey their own research advances would sadly see a delay — on average, six months long — because of the initial lockdown, and subsequent restrictions on laboratory capacity, in addition to the unavailability of national scientific facilities, reports MedicalXpress.

With wider effects on charity funds, including disruption of collaboration and interpersonal teamwork between scientists, and the reallocation of research efforts to thwart the COVID-19 crisis, the respondents predict major advances in cancer research would suffer a delay of 17 months, on average.

However, the researchers emphasized how scientific procedures have adapted in several ways to the pandemic — noting how long-lasting damage to cancer research might be mitigated with extra funding from charitable donations, and support from national governments. This is why the researchers called for staffing investment, and new technology like robotics and computing power.

Respondents have lost nearly 10 months of research time

The ICR has discovered more drugs to help cancer patients than any other academic center in the world — but like many other research institutes it was hit hard with cuts to fundraising income, and grants from other various charities. Consequently, the ICR had to put much of its work on hold amid the initial lockdown, and is as of writing running a critical fundraising appeal to kick-start its research and recover its losses in the race to treat and eventually cure cancer.

The ICR surveyed 239 researchers to illustrate the full effects of the COVID-19 crisis on its research — in addition to seeking ways of putting research back on track as soon as humanly possible.

Respondents added they'd lost roughly 10 weeks of research time — on average — because of the initial lockdown. This means the institute's scientific advances will suffer an average delay of six months. Nearly all respondents confirmed that COVID-19 had taken a significant toll on their work — with 36% observing a "moderate" impact, another 36% observing a "substantial" impact, and 5% seeing an "extreme" impact.

Video conferencing 'no replacement' for working with colleagues in person

Roughly 91% of respondents said the most serious problem involved the closure of labs amid the lockdown, in addition to ongoing restrictions to crucial equipment and facilities. The average ICR researcher worked in labs for roughly 53% of their time before the lockdowns, but this figure dropped sharply to a mere 5% amid the lockdowns — although it's since risen again, but only to 34%.

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The next most-prevalent impacts involved the inability to enroll patients in clinical trials — rated at 60% — in addition to available clinical samples, which was 46%. The inability to interact with colleagues was cited by 41% of respondents, and many saw video conferencing as an unsatisfying substitute for in-person meetings and related events.

Sixty percent of researchers think extra staff time might help

However, many researchers found ways to make their time productive. For example, 48% carried out training, and 62% moved research forward at their desks, with 33% doing so computationally. Some 5% pivoted to researching COVID-19 — some of which helped the wider scientific community gain deeper insights on the effects of the virus on cancer treatment options.

Sadly the main revelation from the survey is plain: the emotional impact scientists and researchers have suffered is vast. Roughly 69% of researchers observed how the coronavirus crisis left them "frustrated," with 39% "saddened," and 25% "depressed."

Respondents were largely in support of continuing efforts to keep labs open — and stop potential disruptions to research advances for cancer patients. The ICR's labs have luckily remained open amid the second lockdown, thanks in part to substantial measures to lower the risk of spreading the illness.

More than 60% of ICR's researchers felt funding for extra staff time would help them cover lost ground, with nearly 40% wanting upgrades in various technological resources, like robotics — and 29% wanting increased computing power.

Funding gap in sciences because of COVID-19 is serious

"Our researchers are passionate about making advances to benefit patients, so it has been hugely frustrating that their work has been so disrupted, although also inspiring to see how well they have adapted to the restrictions the pandemic has imposed on our lives," said Professor Paul Workman, the ICR's chief executive, MedicalXpress reports.

"It is sobering to see that our researchers are estimating that their own research advances will be delayed by six months — and that the wider impact, because of the interconnectedness of science, is likely to push back major advances for patients by nearly a year and a half," added Workman.

"Our survey though does provide solutions to mitigate the impact— in the form of investment in staffing, new technologies and computing power. For that, we need more of the generous donations we have been receiving to our emergency appeal, along with a commitment from the Government to help fill the funding gap for the life sciences left by the pandemic," said Workman.

'Light-bulb' moments with colleagues lacking amid COVID-19

"Our work is reliant on access to shared infrastructure in London and nationally, and during the first lockdown this became impossible," said Deputy Head Sebastian Guettler of structural biology at the ICR. "These facilities have now introduced or widened remote access — we can control experiments hundreds of miles away from our won homes, with good broadband internet speeds. But we continue to be limited when it comes to preparing samples in the lab, which are then shipped to these facilities for experiments."

"It's been an intensely frustrating time, and some teams are much more affected than others — depending on which facilities they need," added Guettler. "The coronavirus has also reduced or stopped the spontaneous interactions with colleagues that science is so dependent on for generating new ideas. Video conferencing has helped us stay connected as a lab and a community, but it's not a true replacement for those light bulb moments you might get from chatting with someone at a conference or over coffee in the canteen."

Crucial cancer trials suspended, needing re-launch amid COVID-19 lockdowns

However, Guettler emphasized how it wasn't all bad. "Being able to access shared facilities remotely will be helpful in the future, and we know we can make up for some of the lost time if we have more funding for people and equipment to catch up on the lost laboratory work," he said.

In general, the ICR's work to advance scientific efforts to thwart cancer relies on continually running and starting up new clinical trials, said Deputy Director Emma Hall of the Clinical Trials and Statistics Unit of the ICR. But COVID-19 has made this standard hard to keep up. "The pandemic has meant that it will take longer to answer the questions asked in our trials, and that will delay new treatments getting to patients," said Hall.

"During the initial lockdown, non-COVID clinical research pretty much shut down within the NHS. A lot of our trials were effectively paused because the hospitals that host them had to redeploy resources to COVID-19 research or treatment," said Hall.

Finding new ways of making up lost research time could mitigate effects of COVID-19 delays

An October report published in the journal Cancer Cell showed the complex interrelationship between COVID-19 and cancer.

"COVID-19 has been responsible for killing more than one million people worldwide. Among those most at risk of developing severe forms of the illness are patients with cancer," said one of the study authors, Ziad Bakouny, of Dana-Farber, along with co-author Jessica Hawley of Columbia University Medical Center. "Research into why patients with cancer are at heightened risk is moving very quickly," they said in a blog post on Dana-Farber's website.

As world-historic and tragic as the COVID-19 crisis is, it seems the collateral damage in distracting the medical community under lockdowns and remote working has set the fight to thwart cancer back on the order of years. But all hope is not lost — since communities undergoing a second lockdown are losing less ground than the first time, and new evolving ways of working around social distancing limits — in addition to novel ways of making up for lost time — might work to mitigate the ongoing effects of delays on research, emotional stability, and community.

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