Iain Foulkes, our executive director of research at Cancer Research UK.
No-one today would disagree with the Nobel scientist Peter Medawar when he described viruses as “bad news wrapped in a protein coat”. The COVID-19 virus is very bad news indeed, albeit wrapped in a lipid coat.
Despite being 450 times smaller than the width of a human hair, it’s done a pretty good job of crippling the entire world, our economy, and our way of life.
It’s also taking life at a rate and scale not seen for generations – a devastating impact, caused by something so small. Viruses aren’t even alive – they “are at the edge of life”, as the scientist Ed Rybicki once said.
In contrast, at Cancer Research UK we’re focused on one of the most complex diseases known to humans. Cancer of course comes from within our own cells and tissues. Its complexity is a function of our own biological complexity, and will take many years to crack.
But right now, the science of these two fields collide. The techniques and approaches used by cancer researchers for decades – epidemiology, molecular biology, virology and immunology – are the same disciplines being used to track, understand and defeat this virus.
How we’re responding to the COVID-19 crisis
The interplay also means our research community can get involved in the national and global effort to beat COVID-19.
The Cancer Research UK scientific family has provided much-needed kit and machinery, and volunteered their skills, to the national testing labs being set up across the devolved nations – an important effort to scale up the UK’s testing capacity.
At local levels, our scientists are converting their cancer labs to testing hubs.
Our chief clinician, Professor Charlie Swanton, spent 2 weeks leading a team from UCLH and the Francis Crick Institute, working day and night to get a test up and running for NHS frontline workers and patients – in doing so he put his TRACERx lung cancer research programme on hold, and converted his lab over to COVID-19.
The Francis Crick Institute in London have opened a COVID-19 testing facility for local hospitals.
Other scientists, clinicians, trialists and statisticians are volunteering too – helping to set up COVID-19 trials for vaccines, therapeutics and drug-repurposing studies.
Our research nurses have gone to support the NHS’s vital life-saving efforts, as well as supporting cancer patients where they can. Their efforts, and those of others from Southampton to Cambridge, Manchester to Glasgow and everything in between, will save lives.
It’s inspiring to see the cancer research community united with other scientists across the country in their efforts. We’re even engaging our international community of scientists through our Grand Challenge research programme.
On top of this, we’re working hard to provide ongoing support and information to everyone affected by cancer. Because, despite this crisis, people still need treatment and they still need care.
We’re supporting people affected by cancer with information, through the helpline staffed by our brilliant nurses, and by working with the NHS and Pubic Health England to ensure standard of care can be maintained as best as possible.
We are also monitoring the impact of COVID-19 on cancer patients in the mid-term, in order that we can help the NHS recover quickly, and pick up cancer services as rapidly as possible when this is over.
It’s inspiring to see so many come together from so many different fields at this time. Even more so at a time when we’re forced to make funding cuts to our life-saving work.
This is undoubtedly the biggest crisis the charity has faced in recent history.
It’s hit our fundraising through shop closures, stopping events like Race for Life, and reducing the value of our investments. Like all charities, we have reserves, but we would burn through them quickly if we didn’t act.
This has, of course, led to tough decisions being made – to defer funding rounds and cut live research grants. Our institutes’ and existing response-mode funding will be cut by 5–10% and our centres and wider infrastructure by up to 20% this year.
Our scientific community have responded with total understanding and huge support – all credit to them for that.
And within the charity, our teams of talented fundraisers – supported by people across the organisation, from tech to HR to finance – are working to come up with creative ways to fundraise so our vital work can continue.
We must remain optimistic in the face of this pandemic. The charity has seen dark times before. The photo below is of some of the founding members of Imperial Cancer Research Fund (ICRF) – one of Cancer Research UK’s forerunners – stood on the steps of the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Some of the founding members of Imperial Cancer Research Fund.
Five years after this photo was taken, the First World War began.
The staff of ICRF saw through this tragic world event, and another world war 20 years later. I’m sure many people at the time wondered about the charity’s future and worried about the loss of scientific momentum they had helped to create.
But their tenacity and creativity helped to build the Cancer Research UK we know today – one the most successful cancer research organisations in the world, with an incredible track record of scientific progress and patient impact.
Today, we are the custodians of this great organisation. And while there will be some difficult choices ahead, I believe the tenacity, creativity and resourcefulness of the Cancer Research UK team will mean we come out more united than ever.
Today our researchers are helping to beat COVID-19 so that ‘tomorrow’ we can get back to beating cancer. And I know that everyone involved with the charity is doing the same.
Iain Foulkes is the executive director of research at Cancer Research UK