Shifting the needle: How can new innovation aid cancer care?

We find ourselves at a pivotal time for health technology. While on the one hand, we are facing the biggest public health threat for a century; on the other, we are developing solutions to tackle this threat faster and more efficiently than ever before. Collaboration has been vital throughout and industry has played a huge role in supporting the NHS and those on the frontline of the UK’s response to the pandemic. 

In addition to the enormous impact of COVID-19 itself, another concerning aspect of the pandemic will be the fallout on the NHS. Foremost is the impact on cancer care. There have been significant delays to cancer screening, and waits for further diagnostic tests and treatment. It is estimated that around three million fewer people were screened between March and September 2020 in the UK, and nearly 44,000 fewer patients started treatment for cancer between April and January 2020/21, compared to the same time periods in the previous year. There is also a concern that people with possible cancer symptoms are less likely to go to their GP since the pandemic started.

This has placed the NHS Long Term Plan of diagnosing 75% of people with cancers at an early stage into jeopardy and highlights the greater need for innovation in healthcare. The challenge is clear and health technology is more important than ever as we look to overcome these challenges in cancer care – both to speed up diagnosis and target treatment to improve quality of life and outcomes for patients.

The Cancer Tech Accelerator programme

This vital need for innovation is a theme highlighted in Cancer Research UK’s Early Detection and Diagnosis of Cancer Roadmap, which highlights accelerators and innovation ecosystems as mechanisms by which data-driven and diagnostic opportunities have the most chance of successful adoption into health systems.

One way in which Roche UK is rising to this innovation challenge is by fostering collaboration and driving forward new innovation in the sector. As such, Roche UK is incredibly proud to have recently participated in the launch of a new Cancer Tech Accelerator programme with Cancer Research UK and Capital Enterprise to help budding entrepreneurs.

The Cancer Tech Accelerator will equip researchers with the entrepreneurial, business and technical skills required to develop their tech-led innovations. Focussing on the stage before company formation, it is specifically targeted at academic researchers developing early-stage technologies relying on data, artificial intelligence (AI) or medtech to advance the early detection, diagnosis, monitoring or treatment of cancer.

As part of Cancer Research UK’s Entrepreneurial Programmes Initiative, which promotes a culture of entrepreneurship amongst academics in the UK, the Cancer Tech Accelerator will enable researchers to develop and test the commercial potential of their innovations. They will have access to advice from experts from Roche UK, Capital Enterprise and Cancer Research UK, alongside mentors from across the healthtech ecosystem.

The value of medtech innovation

The need for innovation and new technologies has never been more vital. The NHS faced challenges even before the pandemic: from an ageing population, long-term conditions and significant funding issues. Leaders in the healthcare space have always had to find innovative ways to do more with less, without compromising patient care. 

These challenges have been significantly compounded by the pandemic and the need to support the cancer community to regain ground lost during COVID is more vital with every week that passes. The dawn of new technology such as AI, machine learning, digital solutions or new tools among more traditional medtech – presents an opportunity to help alleviate some of the pressure, both on waiting lists and on healthcare professionals, while also offering potential for ground-breaking progress in what healthcare can do.

Roche Diagnostics has invested heavily in digital pathology in the UK. We’ve seen some great progress with the Northern Pathology Imaging Cooperative in Leeds – an ongoing project that began with a £10.1 million investment from UK Research and Innovation.

The partnership, led by the University of Leeds and Leeds Teaching Hospitals, includes nine NHS hospitals, seven universities, Roche Diagnostics and a further nine healthtech companies. It is supported by £7 million from industry and is now in its second round of funding. The consortium is set to become a world leading centre for applying AI research to cancer diagnosis. 

In pathology, AI offers particular value as it can be trained to recognise the patterns of disease – for example, searching for small areas of cancer in a large sample. It can help make cancer diagnosis more efficient and accurate, so that diagnosis can be given even more confidently. Pathologists examine biopsies, using a microscope, to decide if a sample shows cancer, and what type of cancer it is. Digital pathology takes this a step further – it makes it possible to scan and create digital images of microscope slides, so they can be examined on screen, and shared between hospitals more easily and with speed. This, along with the benefits and promise of AI, has the potential to revolutionise cancer diagnosis and how treatment decisions are made, while also reducing costs to the NHS, and increasing access to more personalised healthcare.

We also work in genome sequencing through platforms which help to digitise tissue slides to both aid clinical decision-making and provide reassurance in diagnostic accuracy. This technology also has AI backing from a computer that has learnt how to detect mutations. In addition to supporting clinical decision-making, there are also enormous benefits for workflow. For example, during the pandemic many people are working from home, a situation which looks set to remain even after we emerge and return to a version of normality. The advantages of helping pathologists to access high quality digital slides remotely, speak for themselves.

Looking ahead

The NHS is facing an uphill battle to return to a more normal pace of work post-COVID. Innovations in medtech are not designed to replace healthcare professionals, or to supplant their considerable expertise. Rather, they can enable them to work more efficiently in the face of growing demand and a shortfall in capacity, and thereby help to deliver better outcomes for patients. Ultimately, the sooner a patient is diagnosed, the sooner they can be treated effectively and the better the prognosis.

The answer is to keep innovating. Recovering from COVID-19 will take time but speeding up the diagnosis and treatment of patients with cancer through medtech innovations can and should play a huge role in addressing the considerable backlog in cancer care. COVID-19 has taught us so much, not least that necessity is not only the mother of invention, it is in fact the driver of collaboration, enterprise and new and innovative ways of working. The ethos of partnership and collaboration which is central to the Cancer Tech Accelerator has more than proved the benefit it can bring over the last twelve months, and by identifying and supporting the next generation of innovation it will continue to do so long into the future.