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Why we must continue to research and innovate in the field of cancer

Putting an end to the healthcare crisis domino effect: Why we must continue to research and innovate in the field of cancer

This article originally appeared on Linkedin on September 30 2020.

It has never been more important for us in pharma to show our value and ability to work quickly in responding to this threat to global public health; a threat that is becoming more apparent each day. The treatment and care needs of patients with other diseases such as cancer are being overlooked, and the pressures of new and existing disease cases on the global health system are only adding fuel to the fire. As we continue our search for a vaccine for COVID-19, we must ensure that our reaction to the pandemic doesn’t detract from our ability to innovate, and that it doesn’t negatively impact our commitment in other disease areas. Alongside our journey to finding effective vaccines and treatments for COVID-19, here are just a few of the reasons why I believe we, in pharma, must continue with the same drive to research and innovate in the field of cancer:

1. Patients at high risk will be protected

Many people with cancer have a weakened immune system, not only as a result of the disease itself, but also from today’s cancer treatments. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy can cause a drop in the number of white blood cells that help fight infection, which means these patients fall into the ‘high-risk’ category for COVID-19. With cancer patients amongst those at highest risk of complications from COVID-19, continuing to innovate and research in the field of cancer will be incredibly important if we want to find new and effective treatments with fewer effects on the patient’s immune system.

At Janssen we have an ongoing commitment to immunotherapy, one of the most promising advances in cancer care, with special interest in the type that activates the immune system’s response to infection. Our recent work in multiple myeloma provides a glimpse of what we’re doing behind the scenes in cancer types which can achieve the most impact today. Alongside this, we’re responding to the emerging needs of cancer patients by investigating solid tumor types, which make up over a quarter of new annual cancer cases.

Providing cancer patients with alternatives to treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy can both strengthen immunity and limit the number of visits to the clinic. Inevitably, we’ll be protecting those at highest risk of contracting COVID-19 during and following the pandemic.

“…we must ensure that our reaction to COVID-19 doesn’t detract from our ability to innovate and negatively impact our commitment within other disease areas…”

2. A sudden influx in new disease cases after the pandemic will be avoided and global health preserved.

With COVID-19 requiring such a concentrated effort, healthcare services are burdened and unable to deliver the same standard of care for cancer patients as before the pandemic. Lockdowns and social distancing measures across the EU have delayed diagnoses of cancers, and for many people, cancer screenings have been suspended, treatments put on hold, routine check-ups deferred, and only urgent cases prioritized. The added risk of taking a trip to the clinic also means patients risk delaying care. However, the European Society for Medical Oncology has called on oncologists not to delay cancer treatments because of the pandemic. There is fear it could lead to “inappropriate care and potential negative outcomes,” but this fear is becoming a reality as a secondary healthcare crisis looms. The UK’s National Health Service itself is experiencing a backlog of over 4 million patients.

In fact, over a third of 155 countries around the world have seen cancer services partially or completely disrupted, rising to over a half of countries where the COVID-19 virus has taken hold in the general community. Cases of cancers will inevitably rise once the pandemic is over, so limiting this future burden on hospitals and healthcare professionals should be top priority.

This effort will require both a preventive and active approach and I am excited to see how our commitment to disease interception will help us to not just treat, but also take hold of cancer before it takes hold in the body. Take our work on the gut microbiome as an example; we hope that soon we will be able to use some of the gut bacteria as biomarkers to help us predict who may be at higher risk of developing certain types of cancers.

3. We’ll be continuing the work of research organizations that have been forced to cut funding in cancer research.

Although medical research can be funded by a number of entities (the government, cancer societies, pharma companies etc.), organizations that predominantly fund cancer research through charitable funding have faced setbacks during the pandemic and have had to cut funding significantly. As the world turns to pharma in hope that we will end the pandemic sooner and with expectations of the public higher than ever before, it has put us in a leading position globally; one that comes with great responsibility!

We must then take it upon ourselves to ensure we accelerate efforts in areas where research is essentially being ‘lost.’ Investing and innovating more through collaborating will allow us in pharma to continue the much-needed work of the research organizations and bring some confidence back to the cancer patients that have suffered during this pandemic. Our recent collaboration with Taris, a privately owned biotech, is just one example that shows we can bring our R&D teams and scientists together to optimize drug candidates for cancer patients.

Of course, as an industry we must go beyond cancer research and beyond ensuring a sufficient supply of treatments if we are going to put an end to the healthcare crisis domino effect. We must continue to explore all options to ensure that cancer patients are getting access to the treatments and services they need during this crisis, whether that be providing more convenient treatment options or allowing clinicians to re-engage with their patients to address their fears. What’s clear to me is that working together and collaborating on every level will be key!

Where do you think we should be innovating to prevent a secondary healthcare crisis?