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Cancer researchers work through night as pandemic restricts access to labs
Cancer researchers are having to work extremely early in the morning or late into the night to minimise the impact of Covid-19 on their work after the latest lockdown imposed further restrictions on access to labs.
One year on from the first lab closures, The Institute of Cancer Research, London, is warning that tightened restrictions in response to new variants have further limited laboratory research time – and slowed the race to find new cancer treatments.
At the start of the latest lockdown, the number of researchers able to access labs fell by almost 30 per cent on top of the restrictions that already existed before Christmas.
Only extra financial support for cancer research organisations will prevent further hold-ups in new advances reaching cancer patients. Scientists estimated advances for cancer patients would be put back by an average of 17 months following the first lockdown – and The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) is now appealing for new funding amid fears that the delay could now be as much as two years.
Since the early days of the first lockdown, when many labs were closed entirely, the ICR has been making immense efforts to get its research going again – with a peak of more than 500 staff and students a day coming into lab buildings during November.
But the latest lockdown imposed the greatest restrictions since the early days of the pandemic, with the numbers down by 28 per cent in the second week of January, and still down by 15 per cent in early February.
The ICR is only able to keep its research going thanks to the extraordinary efforts of its scientists, with almost 30 per cent of shifts in labs beginning outside of standard contracted hours – either at the weekend or between the hours of midnight and 8am, or 8pm to midnight.
As restrictions ease, the ICR’s researchers have been sharing their stories of working in laboratories through the night and other antisocial hours so they can keep making progress against cancer. Despite the challenges, scientists are remaining positive about their ability to make progress both in their labs and through computational research working from home.
To keep people safe and reduce spread of Covid-19, there have been limits to the number of people who can occupy laboratories. Researchers have had to alter their hours to spread their use of labs across the week, as well as to avoid peaks on public transport.
A survey of the ICR’s researchers conducted in the autumn found that they estimated advances for cancer patients would be delayed by an average of 17 months because of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Researchers are now warning of even longer delays in advances reaching patients without further support from donors and the Government. Alongside the limitations to labs and research collaboration caused by the pandemic, medical research charities have been hit hard and there are concerns over the Government’s long-term funding for science following Brexit.
Since the pandemic started, the ICR has had research grants from charities cut by around £8 million – a reduction of about 20 per cent in total annual funding from charity grants. The ICR has also had notice that further cuts in grants are on the way.
The ICR, which is a charity itself as well as a research institute, has been significantly affected. To help make up for the research time and funding lost to the pandemic, it is urgently seeking donations.
Professor Paul Workman, Chief Executive of The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said:
“The coronavirus pandemic has posed the greatest threat to cancer research in generations. I now fear that when our researchers predicted in the autumn that advances for cancer patients could be delayed by nearly 18 months, it was an underestimate. Without extra funding to address the effects of the pandemic and plug holes in research budgets, cancer patients could end up waiting an extra two years to benefit from research discoveries.
“It’s great that science is now helping us get out of lockdown and begin to return to normal, but unfortunately cancer hasn’t been waiting for us – it remains as big a challenge as ever. We need as much support as possible to ensure that our research can make up lost ground in finding the new treatments that will make a difference for patients. Cancer won’t wait.”
Professor Jessica Downs, Deputy Head of Cancer Biology at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, said:
“When we had to shut down our lab in the first lockdown, we thought the disruption would just be for a few weeks. If someone had told me then that, more than a year later, we’d still not be back to normal, I’d have been gutted.
“It has been essential to adapt our working patterns to ensure we could still be productive. Science has always been a bit of a 24/7 job sometimes involving coming in overnight or on a weekend, but this is now very much more the norm. The team has adapted terrifically, but we’re still probably losing about a day a week each.
“We’re acutely aware of the strain our charity funders are facing right now and we appreciate the fact that they, and the ICR, have been as flexible as possible to ensure we can keep going. But, with so much of science involving short-term contracts and renewals being driven by results, it’s a stressful time. Funding support, whether from donations or the Government, is more important than ever.”
Dr Erik Wennerberg, leader of the Radiation-enhanced Immunotherapy team at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, moved to the ICR last year during the pandemic. He said:
“Being new to the ICR, I’d have liked to build up those critical scientific networks by meeting with colleagues and having those serendipitous conversations that trigger so many ideas. We have video meetings – and that’s helped to get people together quicker than we ever could in real life – but there’s something special about sitting together and sharing ideas on a whiteboard.
“We’ve lost time getting started – the restrictions made it much harder to get the lab space set up and then once we got into the space, it’s been much harder to get equipment delivered and to carry out essential training with new team members.
“There’s clearly going to be a lot of long-term impacts from the pandemic but I can tell that we’re all looking forward to restrictions being lifted and being able to go full steam ahead to make up for the lost time.”
Sue Duncombe’s husband enrolled in a clinical trial after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2005. She said:
"My husband, Philip, was diagnosed with prostate cancer at the age of 52. He had surgery, hormone treatment and chemotherapy, but the cancer became resistant to the treatment, and it spread. Philip was becoming more and more unwell, and at this point we thought we were out of options.
“But then he was lucky to be enrolled in a trial of a new drug, abiraterone, which the ICR discovered. This drug gave us almost an extra year of quality time together, which we made the most of with family and friends. When a drug has such an impact on a patient’s life, it’s not just that person that benefits, but everyone around them.
“That drug is now used routinely for men like Philip. Without that research, there are many men who wouldn’t have hope for a longer and better future. Delays to research means delays to treatment advances, and delays to improvements in survival rates – research gives cancer patients hope.”
The Institute of Cancer Research, London, is one of the world's most influential cancer research organisations.
Scientists and clinicians at The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) are working every day to make a real impact on cancer patients' lives. Through its unique partnership with The Royal Marsden NHS Foundation Trust and 'bench-to-bedside' approach, the ICR is able to create and deliver results in a way that other institutions cannot. Together the two organisations are rated in the top four centres for cancer research and treatment globally.
The ICR has an outstanding record of achievement dating back more than 100 years. It provided the first convincing evidence that DNA damage is the basic cause of cancer, laying the foundation for the now universally accepted idea that cancer is a genetic disease. Today it is a world leader at identifying cancer-related genes and discovering new targeted drugs for personalised cancer treatment.
A college of the University of London, the ICR is the UK’s top-ranked academic institution for research quality, and provides postgraduate higher education of international distinction. It has charitable status and relies on support from partner organisations, charities and the general public.
The ICR's mission is to make the discoveries that defeat cancer.