While cancer statistics for the last 10 years make encouraging reading, more needs to be done globally to fight the killer disease.
That's the view of AICR's Scientific Co-ordinator Dr Mark Matfield. AICR annually awards millions of pounds to fund the best new research projects it receives, from many of the most promising scientists anywhere in the world.
In the 30 years since AICR was established, survival rates for cancer have increased remarkably, Dr Matfield said.
“Today more people are surviving cancer and fewer people are getting the disease than even a decade ago. But there is a huge inequality between the amount of cancer research in the developed world and that in the developing countries.
“More than half of the countries in the world have no serious cancer research and there are vast areas where there is very little investment in university research and few people gaining research degrees. While countries like China are starting, now, to invest heavily in universities and in cancer research, this is very limited in most of the African continent and many parts of South America.
“AICR has funded researchers from places like Russia and Thailand, but they find it hard to conduct high-quality research in their native country, due to a lack of infrastructure and some prefer to take their grant and study somewhere like the US or the UK.
“Research into cancer is certainly making progress, every year, with improvements in screening having a marked effect already on cervical and breast cancer survival rates for example,” said Dr Matfield
“But the whole world needs to start taking cancer research seriously. When you look at the incidence of various cancers around the globe, you can see why it is important for different countries to support research into the disease which affects their own populations. Liver cancer is almost unknown in the western world, but very common in the developing world.
Because almost all of the research into cancer is carried out in the developed world, investment in liver cancer is low, despite it being a huge problem in poorer countries.”
Dr Matfield said another growing problem in developing countries was smoking.
“In China and India, lung cancer rates are growing due to smoking. As a country's economy starts to grow, more people begin smoking which causes more lung cancer. These countries are starting to invest heavily in cancer research.”
In recent years, research funded by AICR has led to important discoveries such as the identification of a 'rogue' gene which allows cancer cells to spread by Dr Andrew Chantry and his team at the University of East Anglia. This raises the possibility of developing drugs to turn off the gene WWP2 and prevent cancers from spreading.
Late last year, AICR Fellow, Professor Eric So, King's College, University of London, discovered that leukaemic stem cells can be reversed to a pre-leukaemic stage by turning off a protein called beta-catenin found in the blood.
Said Dr Matfield: “These are exciting new discoveries and a good example of how basic research into cancer such as that funded by AICR can open up the potential to develop new methods to treat the disease.
“One of the very first grants we awarded was in 1980, to Dr P R Salmon of University College Hospital, London, who was awarded a one-year grant to study photodynamic therapy – the use of lasers and light-sensitive drugs to treat cancer. The research we funded, along with a number of other research projects, led to the first use of photodynamic therapy on patients in 1981 and the establishment of the National Medical Laser Centre at UCH in 1986.”