February 4 is World Cancer Day – a day that will sadly have meaning for almost everyone.
As CEO for a global organization funding prostate and testicular cancer research and care, my vision is to help build a world where no man dies of these cancers. Up until the mid-1940s there were no treatments for cancer and no survival rate. Viewed from this perspective, cancer treatment has come a long way, but the fact remains that 4.6 million men are still dying every year.
These numbers are as bleak as the breakthroughs are inspiring. This is typical of work in the cancer space: frustration, hope, sadness and elation can be very closely mingled.
Cancer research takes a long time to come to fruition. Although I understand the reasons why that is, it’s always a source of frustration. In a society where efficiency and quick delivery are prized, investing millions in research can seem like it produces very poor returns, very slowly. In the US alone, $28 billion is spent each year on basic biomedical research that cannot be reproduced.2 Another study showed that only about 25% of published preclinical studies could be validated to the point at which projects could continue.3
I constantly question myself – is the way in which we’re tackling research correct?
There is obviously a lot at stake and I want to be sure we’re working smartly. Through my work at the Movember Foundation, there are two key points that have shaped my view on how we should approach cancer research, globally.
The first thing is that research is very often unsuccessful.
The experiment is set up; the clinical trial is run; it doesn’t work but it still costs a lot of money and takes a very long time. Was that research or trial in vain? No. Everything provides part of the ultimate answer however we need to change the culture of cancer research, make it ok to fail, fail faster and share what didn’t work to the same extent that a breakthrough is shared.
The second key learning is that research is often incremental.
Small developments build understanding that then lead to significant advances and discoveries. Never does a “Eureka” moment occur without insights and teachings learnt from previous work.
Taking the above two points, it’s clear to me that there is one obvious thing that needs to happen, globally and without exception – collaboration, between charities, governments, institutions and researchers.
Collaboration itself is not a new word, but for the world of cancer research it’s an innovative approach. My view is that we need to collaborate to maximize investment and increase research capabilities. Personal interests such as profit, competition, rivalry, or recognition need to be put aside.
In my mind, it’s not ok to bury what you’ve learned – even if the work wasn’t deemed a success. It’s not ok to put the scientific community into a position where they fear failure. It’s not ok to favour short-term success over long-term learning.
Through team-based research, performed across borders and with a strong collaborative mindset, we will avoid duplication of work and deliver innovation and knowledge sharing. This in turn leads to an acceleration of results that will positively impact and benefit men diagnosed and living with cancer.
It frustrates me, as I know it does others in the cancer world, to think of the duplication of work that has happened due to a lack of communication, collaboration and knowledge-sharing. Well-intentioned research funded by people or organizations who believed in its potential to be a breakthrough or a cure, when in fact that research had already occurred and been concluded. Valuable time and money spent on already disproved theories.
For the sake of scientific progress, collaboration needs to be the binding theme that unites and drives research communities forward. It’s starting to happen, but we need widespread acknowledgement that it’s the smartest way to work going forward.
It’s true that global collaboration is a significant challenge and in many ways the charity sector who funds much of the initial research is not structured to facilitate this. The majority of cancer charities are nationally focused, many have names that include their country of origin thereby branding them as nationally focused, in many countries the charity regulations require the funds raised in a country to stay in that country. The result is that charities don’t end up funding the most promising research in the world no matter where it is.
To beat cancer, we need to be thinking at a global level.
The Movember Foundation is uniquely placed to operate at a global level as we have campaigns in 21 countries and are the major funders of prostate and testicular cancer research. This reach and influence has enabled us to develop global prostate and testicular cancer research strategies which all research must feed into, it has enabled us to form global teams working on specific projects, it has enable us to facilitate collaboration and require sharing of data and outcomes be that progress or dead ends.
I often get asked – ‘what does collaboration look like?’
It’s pretty basic, we connect the smartest minds in the world working on the same challenges, we facilitate conferences, teleconferences, we provide technology platforms to share data, and most importantly we provide funding. But it doesn’t stop there we hold these teams accountable for sharing information and for making progress.
Some researchers don’t like our open approach, that’s fine, they just don’t get our funding.
The commitment I’m making today, World Cancer Day 2016, is that the Movember Foundation will continue to only fund research on the condition that those involved agree to openly share their successes and failures. Ultimately this will enable groundbreaking discoveries to develop into reproducible and reputable treatments and services accessed by millions of men living with cancer worldwide. That’s our vision, for World Cancer Day and beyond.
Adam Garone, CEO and Co-founder, Movember Foundation
Photo courtesy of the author.