As the ripples from the ongoing crisis in the eurozone continue to spread, cancer researchers in the countries worst affected warned today that their work would have stalled without vital grants from AICR.
Four leading figures, from Greece, Portugal and Italy, have confirmed that without their AICR funding, their research may well have ended prematurely or, as in the case of award-winning Dr Miguel Godinho Ferreira, from Lisbon, never have begun in the first place.
Established for little more than 30 years, AICR annually awards grants totalling almost £9 million to the best new research into cancer, wherever that is being carried out, under the banner: 'Cancer knows no boundaries. Fortunately neither do we.'
Speaking from the University of Crete, where he is Assistant Professor in Cell Biology, Dr George Zachos - who worked in research in the UK for 10 years before returning to Greece almost four years ago - said the situation in his homeland, difficult before the current economic crisis, is now much worse.
“Unfortunately, as I found out upon my return to Greece, it is very hard to apply for Greek funding, especially in cancer research,” he explained. “There are not any Greek charities you can apply to and the Greek Government doesn't have regular opportunities for funding, making planning very difficult. For example, until very recently, there was a period of five or six years without any Government funding opportunities in most scientific disciplines.
“The most recent funding calls mainly referred to environmental, agricultural or marine sciences or required partners from the Greek industry. I believe that's because those areas are perceived by our Government as Greece's: 'strongest research areas'.
Effectively, there are very few funding sources available to us, with AICR and the EU being the most obvious. Importantly though, the EU often has research experience limits, or requires participation in bigger research networks, to enable applications to qualify for funding.
“In other words, I would most definitely not have been able to work without AICR funding.”
Two post doctorate scientists and one PhD student in Professor Zachos' laboratory are all paid for by AICR. He believes his grant from the charity – which is independent of any country - has shielded him from the worst effects of the euro crisis. However, like many, he has seen his university salary slashed by around 30% while the cost of living spiralled.
“I believe more international funding sources and schemes should be available to Greek cancer research scientists to improve things for us in the foreseeable future,” he added.
Christos Tsatsanis, Associate Professor of Clinical Chemistry in the University of Crete's School of Medicine has similar views.
“Being able to seek financial support from reliable sources such as AICR has been vital for us. Without the help from AICR it would be almost impossible to continue our research since the Greek Government has not released any funds for research for the last six years,” he explained.
“There have been a few funding calls in the last year and a half, but in most the results have not yet been announced (the authorities are trying to established a peer review process from scientists outside Greece and it takes longer that expected). The
whole situation over the last few years has been frustrating and frequently discouraging. Without the help from AICR and EU our research would have stalled.”
Italian scientist Dr Marina Mione of The IFOM-IEO Campus, a new biomedical research centre, in Milan, created by the joint efforts of the FIRC Institute of Molecular Oncology Foundation (IFOM) and the Department of Experimental Oncology of the European Institute of Oncology (IEO), says she could not have hoped to have survived the eurozone crisis without the: “fundamentally important” support of AICR.
“I believe that many university research groups and small private research institutes (as well as the biomedical companies) will be hit badly by the crisis and the restrictive measures that the Italian government has taken to respond to it.
“I am not sure about what should be done for our country. It would be very helpful to see a sign of good will from the people in power, by starting to reduce their privileges, wages and how much they cost to the nation. But this is Italy. We will definitely feel strange in asking money from our supporters in the near future, unless they are big corporate entities. So I foresee some problems for charities - hopefully I am wrong.”
Dr Miguel Godinho Ferreira, group leader at the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência, just outside Lisbon, is the first scientist to win Portugal's 10,000 euros Simbiontes Award, for his proposal to investigate the cellular changes that cause cancer in adults.
He said his £130,681 grant from AICR, which ran from April 2006 until August last year, had been “crucial” for him in establishing his lab in Portugal.
“In a very direct way, AICR allowed me to come back to my country to produce high quality science as an independent researcher,” he said. “Funding in Portugal, apparently in contrast to Greece, has been steady with calls open every year. However, the amount they can fund has steeply declined from 23% of the applications three years ago down to only 11% last year. We dread to know what will happen this year.
“In times of financial difficulties (in Portugal especially) it is reassuring to have AICR as a world charity to promote cancer research wherever it is done best. Charities such as AICR really matter for scientists outside the big centres of science.”
Dr Lara Bennett, Scientific Advisor for AICR, said “ The current eurozone crisis only serves to underline the importance of AICR's aim to fund the best research we can, wherever in the world it take place. Cancer does not stop for political reasons and we must ensure that cancer research doesn’t either. We know that these unsettled economic times are hard on everyone which is why we are so grateful to our donors who continue to give what they can. Even a few pounds, when combined with a few more from other donors, soon adds up.”