A new study led by researchers from Queen’s University Belfast and University of Southampton has revealed that only a small percentage of cancer research funding is invested in research into primary treatments, such as surgery (1.4%) and radiotherapy (2.8%), meaning little direct benefit for today’s patients.

The study is published in the June 1, 2023 issue of Lancet Oncology. [1]

It represents the first comprehensive global analysis of cancer research funding, covering approximately $24.5 billion of global investment, from 66,388 public and philanthropic awards between 2016 and 2020.

The study provides crucial information and recommendations for agencies that fund cancer research globally, policymakers, and those developing cancer research funding strategies.

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. GLOBOCAN 2020 estimates that in 2020, almost 10 million deaths were deemed attributable to cancer and 19.3 million new cancer cases were diagnosed, a value projected to increase to 28.4 million by 2040.

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Cancer research is essential to understand evolving patterns of cancer burden and to inform policies aimed at providing more effective, efficient, and equitable care. However, there is an urgent need to review research investment priorities globally to align with population needs to ensure finite resources are invested wisely to achieve maximum improvements in mortality and alleviation of the global cancer burden.

The study showed almost three quarters of cancer research funding is dedicated to pre-clinical or medicinal research, not directly involving patients. And although pre-clinical research has inherent value in improving the knowledge and understanding of cancer, there are usually lengthy delays translating this to patient benefit, with time lags of up to 17 years cited.

Commenting on the importance of the study, Stuart McIntosh, Ph.D.,Clinical Reader from the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen’s University Belfast and lead on the study, said: “Our analysis has shown that current cancer research investment does not align well with either the current global distribution of cancer (including overarching cancer control strategies), nor with the main treatments that are used for patients with cancer. There is an urgent need to look at research funding priorities globally to ensure that finite resources can be used to maximise patient benefit.”

Compared with previous studies, the researchers also demonstrated cancer research investment is decreasing year on year, with a larger drop in 2020 corresponding to the start of the Covid pandemic. Despite the known rapidly increasing burden of cancer in low-income and middle-income countries, only a fraction of cancer research investment is into cancer as a global health problem.

“There will be long-term consequences of the pandemic on other areas of health, including cancer,” noted Michael Head, Ph.D.,Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the University of Southampton co-lead on the study.

“We need to understand the worst of the knowledge gaps, which can potentially be filled with new research. Our analysis can help cancer experts better set priority areas for funding, ultimately for the benefit of future cancer patients,” Head concluded.

[1] McIntosh SA, Alam F, Adams L, Boon IS, Callaghan J, Conti I, Copson E, Carson V, et al. Global funding for cancer research between 2016 and 2020: a content analysis of public and philanthropic investments. Lancet Oncol 2023; 24: 636–45 [Article]

Featured image by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash. Used with permission.

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