Walking into the Honourable Artillery Company courtyard while the resident army regiment were performing their morning drills was intimidating to say the least. But it aptly set the scene for an event that presented itself as a ‘war cabinet’ assembled to discuss the human race’s violent conflict with a many-headed adversary that kills more than eight million people globally every year.
The Economist magazine organises events around the world to discuss important economic or social issues, and its latest efforts have focused on the War on Cancer – a phrase coined by US President Richard Nixon when he launched an intensive campaign to cure the disease in 1971.
President Nixon said: “The same kind of concentrated effort that split the atom and took man to the moon should be turned toward conquering this dread disease.”
So how far have we come since the 1970s? I went along to the event, held in the City of London on Tuesday that brought together 150 government ministers, private-sector CEOs, academics and healthcare professionals for a day of talks to answer that very question – and to discuss how we can alter our tactics for the battles ahead.
Many battles to be won
Professor Kevin Harrington, Head of the Division of Radiotherapy and Imaging here at The Institute of Cancer Research and a consultant oncologist at The Royal Marsden, was asked to speak at one of the sessions. He joined a panel that would discuss ‘defining success’ in the war against cancer – and what the key battles were that would push us ahead of the fight.
Alongside Professor Harrington on the panel sat three internationally renowned leaders in cancer research and policy: Dr Cary Adams, CEO of the Union for International Cancer Control, Alojz Peterle, President of MEPs against Cancer, and Dr Christopher Wild, Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer.
As the old saying goes, ‘prevention is better than cure’ – and panel members backed this strategy as a key weapon against cancer. They commented on the successes of smoking bans in countries all over the world, including a recent ban on smoking in public places in China. Other initiatives to reduce unhealthy diets, physical inactivity, UV exposure and alcohol consumption would also play an important part in reducing the number of people who get cancer, the panellists said.
"I see success as the translation of our biological understanding of cancer into the clinic"
However, as Professor of Biological Cancer Therapies at the ICR and a consultant oncologist, Professor Harrington emphasised the importance of translation of our biological understanding of the disease into the clinic.
Despite the success of some first-line therapies, the rapid rate that tumours evolve in response to treatment means the disease can come back more complex and much harder to treat. He argued that more targeted treatments need to be available as early as possible in treatment to maximise their benefit to patients.
“Currently targeted therapies are used as the third or fourth line of treatment, but by offering them when a patient is first diagnosed, we can improve the chances of curing patients,” explained Professor Harrington.
He also pointed out that treatments such as radiotherapy can help patients see long-term remission from their disease, but that there are discrepancies in access to the newest, most effective forms of radiotherapy.
Barriers to victory
The panel faced a number of questions from the audience, including what barriers they thought we had to break down in order to cure cancer. In his response, Professor Harrington called for more fundamental research into the biology of cancer to identify new drug targets – and said that this would require changes across all contributors including scientists, funders, industry partners and policy makers.
Professor Harrington encouraged pharmaceutical companies to be braver in their search for new cancer drugs, and called for more biomarker-driven clinical trials to identify patients who could benefit from targeted treatments earlier.
He said: “There is a tendency for areas of intense research to get the most funding, but many pharmaceutical companies end up competing over the same targets. We need more opportunities for researchers to look outside the box for new targets, coupled with fundamental research into the biology of cancer to discover new ways to fight the disease.”
It was a day of big ideas, fascinating debate and cautious optimism that we are on the right track to defeating cancer.
As the ICR’s Professor Paul Workman put it at another policy forum last year: “We are not losing the war against cancer – we are just winning it more slowly than we would all like.” For more information about the event and the issues discussed visit The Economist website or search #EconWaronCancer on twitter.
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