Cancer Doesn’t Stop For a Pandemic
Elizabeth Anderson, PhD

Cancer Doesn’t Stop For a Pandemic

For oncology researchers and patients, COVID-19 has been a massive disruption

A lot has changed since the COVID-19 outbreak morphed into the COVID-19 pandemic and upended our existence. Most of us lucky enough to work are doing it remotely. We are donning facemasks, social distancing and reinventing new ways of doing science.

The cancer community—researchers and patients alike—have been readjusting on many different levels. Large drug companies have been re-deploying their many cancer researchers to COVID-19 vaccine and drug projects for the short-term, and outsourcing what they can of their cancer work to outside labs and contract research organizations (CROs) like Charles River, which is also working on COVID-19 research. Smaller biotechs have downsized while academic labs have been locked down, all consequences of shrinking supplies, shifting resources and lockdowns.

Ironically, some cancer specialists, particularly cancer immunologists who have been at the forefront of the immuno-oncology revolution, suddenly find themselves in demand as companies race to develop new drugs and vaccines aimed at SARS-CoV-2, the virus that sparked the pandemic. Their immune expertise has become uniquely valuable as we try to unravel the mysteries of this strange new virus that doesn’t quite behave like others we have seen before.

For cancer patients, it’s been a different kind of shock wave. Some patients are skipping chemotherapy treatments for fear of contracting SARS-CoV-2 and most are seeing their oncologists virtually. For the newly diagnosed, chemo and radiation treatments, as well as surgeries, are being delayed in some of the more hard-hit areas to minimize the risk of transmission. Mammograms, blood draws and other preventive screenings have been reduced, if not cancelled.

While the pandemic response is absolutely essential, and the scientific community is stepping up to the challenge in a big way and going to great lengths to keep their teams safe, there is no denying the impact this has had and will continue to have on cancer research.

One lesson we should take from this crisis is the importance of including research voices in pandemic planning. This will go a long way in helping the biomedical industry prepare for the unexpected, whenever the next crisis hits.

 When academic scientists shut their labs in order to keep their staff safe, they also paused their studies indefinitely. Animals, carefully bred for these studies, have had to be culled. It will take months to build these colonies back up. Research funded by cancer research charities has also been reduced because lockdowns blocked most of the usual ways of raising money. Some studies have been delayed because China, the leading maker of chemical reagents needed for many studies, was in virtual lockdown until April. Thankfully, that logjam is starting to ease.

For those of us fortunate to be able to continue operating our labs, there have been significant adjustments. Social distancing has restricted when and how much research can be conducted. Labs are tight-knit operations and when you have to work six feet apart, it often means that only half the number of people can work and use the equipment in a lab space at any given time.

Unfortunately, what hasn’t stopped is cancer. People are still developing the disease and dying of cancer every day. Families and patients are waiting for solutions—new drugs and diagnostics—and needing care. When this pandemic is over, lung cancer will still be the leading cancer killer, breast cancer the leading cancer diagnosed in women and prostate cancer the leading diagnosed cancer in men.

Interestingly, and despite the pandemic, the rate of drug approvals has not gone down. By the end of May, the US Food and Drug Administration had given the green light to 22 drugs, half of them for cancer. The list included the first antibody drug conjugate—described as “smart bombs”—for women with metastatic triple-negative breast cancer, a huge win for the field.

This is good news! But the longer term impact of COVID-19 on future FDA approvals remains to be seen, particularly since many late stage clinical trials have been delayed. It seems certain though that CROs like Charles River, large pharma, and small biotechs alike will find ways of working together to ensure that high priority areas of cancer research carry on uninterrupted.

To learn more about Charles River's presence at AACR 2020 check out this site.