Cancer. It’s a word that everyone dreads. And because people are living longer, we are now reaching a stage where one in two people will be affected. This capricious disease is hard to avoid.
But thanks to ground-breaking research, survival rates are today double what they were 40 years ago – and it is Cancer Research UK’s aim to keep that survival rate rising
Cancer Research UK (CRUK) is the world’s largest independent cancer research charity. From grappling with rare forms of the disease, to testing new treatments, the charity is focused on turning scientific breakthroughs into better patient care as swiftly as possible – bringing forward the day when all cancers can be cured. Another key part of its mission is to inform. As such, it runs campaigns, such as Dryathlon and Race for Life, and a recent joint campaign with Channel 4, Stand Up To Cancer UK, aimed at raising awareness of the disease and influencing public policy.
Dr Iain Foulkes has a busy role in the organisation as both the Executive Director of Research and Innovation and CEO of Cancer Research Technology. He recently spoke to Research Features about these roles in more detail, outlining the successes and setbacks of cancer research throughout his time at the organisation.
Hello Ian! Could you tell us what your roles involve as the Executive Director of Research & Innovation and CEO of Cancer Research Technology (CRT) at Cancer Research UK (CRUK)?
I oversee our research funding across population research, discovery science, drug discovery and development through to our clinical trial portfolio. As CEO of CRT, I am also responsible for ensuring research insights are developed and patient-benefit realised – often in the form of new drugs or diagnostics. We have the scope and capability as an organisation to go from the first funding of a research idea all the way through to a fully developed or commercialised innovation. We are also able to partner with organisations that can help at the earliest stages and ensure those ideas progress as rapidly as possible.
What are CRUK’s core principles in terms of history, heritage and background, and which areas of cancer research are you currently looking into?
We believe that it is only through a thorough understanding of cancer – at a deep biological level – that we can develop new approaches to beat the disease. We work closely with those we fund – researchers funded via our grants and our core funded institutes and centres. We want a dialogue with the research community that enables them to follow their ideas and discoveries, but also addresses our mission as a funding organisation – to beat cancer sooner. Traditionally we have funded and continue to fund only the very best research, but we also try to facilitate teams to come together in new collaborations. Cancer research today requires lots of different capabilities and the UK has a wealth of them, but we need to find new models to support this capability as a network.
We set out a strategy a couple of years ago that highlighted a number of areas where we wanted to see more research. These included a focus on specific tumour types where we have seen little shift in survival – brain, oesophageal, pancreatic and lung cancer. In addition, we set out to drive a big shift into the field of early disease biology and the early detection of cancer.
How big an influence has CRUK had on research since it was first established?
I think the organisation has had a huge influence on the landscape and focus of cancer research in the UK. In the past years we have established three new institutes (in Oxford, Cambridge and most recently London), we have developed a national network of cancer centres that rival many in the US, and our track record in partnering with industry to establish new therapeutics is second to none – we now see drugs based on Cancer Research UK’s research regularly used in clinical practice. Moreover, our ability to influence public policy based on research evidence has grown immeasurably over the past ten years and we’ve seen great success on issues such as tobacco control, radiation oncology and molecular diagnostics.
From a personal perspective, are there any achievements you are particularly proud of?
I’m fortunate to work in an organisation that attracts some brilliant people, and my job is to help turn their ideas into reality. Most recently we’ve been focused on establishing a more prominent global position with initiatives such as our Grand Challenge – a £20m award to bring the best scientists together from around the world to tackle the biggest problems on cancer. I think this is incredibly exciting and will hugely benefit the UK research ecosystem.
Do you think cancer research receives as much funding and attention as it should?
Cancer is a huge cause of premature death in the UK and even more so globally – survival is improving but as a combined figure 50% of patients don’t survive their disease – there is still much to do. Not only that, but cancer research is behind many of the advances in biological insight and technology development which benefit research across disease areas. What we should be doing as a research sector is building the argument for continued investment in the UK science base – it is one of the UK’s real strengths and an opportunity to attract the world’s best talent and organisations that help us defeat this and other diseases.
How important have initiatives like the Stand Up To Cancer campaign been in highlighting the importance of cancer research?
Hugely important. One of the strengths of Cancer Research UK is that we have to fundraise – all of our research is funded out of the generosity of the public. That means we have to engage a huge number of people in our work, in science, cancer awareness and celebrate the amazing achievements that UK science is delivering every day.
Although your name (Cancer Research UK) has UK in its title, do you extend your research outreach to collaborate with other countries internationally as well?
Much of our work is funded in the UK, although we have always fostered collaboration with international colleagues. More recently, we’ve started to play a more prominent role internationally with initiatives such as the International Cancer Benchmarking Partnership and Grand Challenges. There is a growing need for us to facilitate research across borders and bring the very best people together. The response we had to our first Grand Challenge call was extraordinary, so there is a real demand for funders to support the research community in this way.
The CRUK website states that over the past 40 years, survival rates for cancer sufferers have doubled. Do you think it will be possible to improve this survival rate even further over the next 20 years?
It is our ambition to accelerate progress and reach a position in 20 years where three in four people survive their disease for five years or more. The pace of discovery is fuelling this ambition and with genuine breakthroughs in fields like immuno-oncology we think it will be possible.
Which direction would you like to see cancer research going in the future and how will CRUK’s research leadership strategy play into this?
Firstly, progress in cancer research comes from the brightest minds following their ideas, with funders like Cancer Research UK providing the support for them to do so, and the resources to turn those ideas into new benefits for patients. I would hope our strategy continues to attract the very best people from all over the world to the UK and that the UK research community gets stronger as a result of our investments.
Secondly, I think we need to continue to push for the boundaries around scientific and clinical disciplines to become more permeable. Ground-breaking discoveries are often made at the interface of research disciplines – for example, chemical biology and the development of next generation sequencing and physics and the refinement in radiotherapy dose delivery. I hope all funders can work together to facilitate multidisciplinary approaches.
And thirdly, I hope we can continue to foster collaboration and team science, which is essential if you want to go from a discovery to a new therapy that helps patients. We have to balance the benefits of open competition to fund the best, with the need to bring researchers together in a non-competitive way to progress ideas through to the clinic.
CRUK are renowned for their fundraising events and activities throughout the year. How can our readers get involved with these activities and contribute their time to CRUK?
Cancer Research UK is a big organisation, but every year we start from £0. The vast bulk of donations we receive are less than £50, so every amount helps. Log on to our website and see what you could do to help. There are so many ways to get involved and most have good side benefits, like Dryathlon and Race for Life.
If you would like to get involved with any of Cancer Research UK’s fundraising initiatives, or simply make a donation to their ground-breaking work, please visit their website at www.cruk.org.
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