Cancer researchers fear advances for patients could be delayed by almost a year and a half because of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, a new survey reveals.
Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, told the survey that their own research advances would be pushed back by an average of six months by the initial lockdown, subsequent restrictions on laboratory capacity and the closure of national scientific facilities.
With broader effects on charity funding, disruption of collaboration and personal interaction between scientists, and diversion of research efforts to Covid-19, the respondents estimated that major advances in cancer research would be delayed by an average of 17 months.
But the researchers said science had now adapted in many ways to the pandemic and that long-lasting damage to cancer research could be mitigated through extra funding from charitable donations or Government support – calling for investment in staffing, new technology such as robotics and computing power.
The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), which has discovered more cancer drugs than any other academic centre in the world, has like many research organisations been hit by cuts to its own fundraising income and to grants from other charities. The ICR had to pause much of its work during the initial lockdown, and is now running a major fundraising appeal to help kick-start its research and make up for lost time.
The ICR surveyed 239 of its researchers in order to detail the impact the pandemic has had on its research and to point towards ways of moving research forward again as quickly as possible.
Respondents said they had lost an average of 10 weeks of research time to the first lockdown itself, and that their own scientific advances would be pushed back by an average of six months. Almost all said Covid-19 had had an impact on their work – with 36 per cent saying it had had a ‘moderate’ impact, another 36 per cent a ‘substantial’ impact and 5 per cent an ‘extreme’ impact.
Some 91 per cent said the biggest problem had been the closure of labs during lockdown and subsequent restrictions in access to facilities and equipment – citing, for example, closure of major, national research facilities. The average ICR researcher spent 53 per cent of their working time in a lab before lockdown, plummeting to 5 per cent during lockdown and since recovering to 34 per cent.
The next most cited impacts were inability to enrol patients on clinical trials (60 per cent), to access clinical samples (46 per cent) or to interact in person with colleagues (41 per cent) – with video conferencing seen as a poor substitute for meeting in person at conferences and other events.
Many researchers were, however, able to use the time productively – for example through doing training (48 per cent), or carrying out desk-based (62 per cent) or computational (33 per cent) research. Some carried out research into Covid-19 (5 per cent), including studies that have given us greater insight into the effects of Covid-19 on cancer treatment pathways.
But the survey nevertheless laid bare the emotional impact of the pandemic on researchers. Some 69 per cent of researchers said the impact of the pandemic on their work had left them ‘frustrated’, 39 per cent had been ‘saddened’ and 25 per cent ‘depressed’.
The respondents were strongly supportive of efforts to keep labs open to prevent any further disruption to research advances for cancer patients. The ICR’s labs have managed to stay open during the second lockdown period while taking significant measures to help prevent risk of spread.
The ICR’s researchers did feel that science had adapted to Covid-19 and that there were various ways to make up for lost time – over 60 per cent felt funding for extra staff time would help; almost 40 per cent wanted upgrades in technology, for example for robotics, and 29 per cent increased computing power.
Professor Paul Workman, Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said:
“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.
“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.
“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.”
Support the ICR’s kick-start appeal and help their researchers make up for lost time by donating at ICR.ac.uk/KickstartICR