Cancer experts call on philanthropists to help fund ‘golden age’ of research

Leading cancer experts from around the world are calling on wealthy individuals and philanthropists to dig into their deep pockets to accelerate a new golden age of cancer research. More than 50 senior scientists from the UK, Europe, North America and Asia, including three Nobel laureates, say advances in artificial intelligence and other technologies have created a “unique opportunity” to transform cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment in the next 10 years. In a “Letter to the World”, the researchers called cancer a “defining health issue of our time” and argued that it deserves the same “massive global response” that swung into action during the Covid pandemic to produce tests, vaccines and treatments for the virus.

“As leading representatives of the global scientific and research community, we know we’re standing at a tipping point that could transform how we understand and overcome cancer,” they wrote. With philanthropic support, the researchers said, the field could turn ideas in the lab into clinical tools much faster, and improve or save millions of lives.

Globally, 18 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year and 10 million die from the disease. The number of cases is expected to rise 50% by 2040, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Recently, scientists have noted a sharp rise in cases among the under-50s.

Sir Paul Nurse, the director of the Francis Crick Institute in London and winner of the 2001 Nobel prize in medicine, said technological leaps meant cancer research could now be carried out much more quickly. In the next decade, he said, therapies for childhood cancers could be “revolutionised”, while tests and personal data should enable the earlier detection of tumours and more personalised treatments.

But according to Cancer Research UK, scientists in the field face a £1bn funding shortfall over the next decade that threatens to jeopardise progress. “If we are to continue making huge leaps in how we prevent, diagnose and treat cancer, we need the funds,” said Nurse, a signatory of the letter, which is urging philanthropists to donate to the global effort.

The letter coincides with the launch of CRUK’s More Research, Less Cancer campaign which aims to raise £400m in philanthropic funding. The charity estimates that 110,000 deaths could be avoided over the next 20 years if UK cancer death rates are reduced by 15% in that time.

Britain has some of the worst five-year survival rates among rich countries for breast, lung and colon cancer, three of the most common forms of the disease. The poor performance is largely driven by late diagnoses and delays in treatment. In England, waiting times for cancer patients were the worst on record last year, with less than two-thirds starting treatment within 62 days of cancer being suspected.

Researchers hope survival rates will improve if a raft of new technologies prove themselves. Next generation blood tests can detect more than a dozen cancers early on, while AI is increasingly being used to flag patients most at risk of specific cancers.

Another signatory of the letter, Prof Sir Peter Ratcliffe, the winner of the 2019 Nobel prize in medicine who holds posts at the Crick and the University of Oxford, said new computational tools showed enormous potential. “When combined with new analytical methods operating at the molecular level there is the ability to transform the way we think about cancer and the design of cancer therapeutics,” he said.

CRUK said philanthropic donations raised by its campaign would support work at the Crick and the global Cancer Grand Challenges research initiative.

Prof Caroline Dive, interim director at the CRUK Manchester Institute, said: “We are at a really crucial time for cancer research. I don’t think it’s any exaggeration to say that we are moving into a golden age, where discoveries from the past few decades have set us up to make real progress.”