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Cancer Doesn't Have Borders, And Nor Should Research

04/02/2016 5:09 AM AEDT | Updated 15/07/2016 12:51 PM AEST
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Globe in laboratory bottle

Today is World Cancer Day. With 8.2 million people around the world dying from cancer each year, it is a day that will sadly have meaning for almost everyone. There are also 14 million people diagnosed with cancer each year and it's expected there will be a 70 percent increase in new cases of cancer over the next 20 years.

As CEO for a global organisation funding men's health issues including prostate and testicular cancer research and care, my vision is to help build a world where no man dies of cancer. Up until the mid-1940s, there were no treatments for cancer and no survival rate. Viewed from this perspective, cancer treatment has come a miraculously long way, but the fact remains that 4.6 million men are still losing their lives to cancer each 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 repeated successfully. Another study showed that only about 25 percent of published preclinical studies could be validated to the point at which projects could continue.

Unfortunately, research is often unsuccessful. The experiment is set up, the clinical trial is run, it doesn't work -- but it still cost a lot of money. Was that research or trial in vain? No. Everything provides part of the ultimate answer. Sometimes it's just a matter of learning what not to do, so it can be avoided next time.

Another important point to note about research is that it 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 points, it's clear to me that there is one obvious thing that needs to happen, globally and without exception: collaboration between not-for-profits, governments, institutions and researchers.

Collaboration itself is not a new word, but for the world of cancer research it's an innovative approach. We need to collaborate to maximise investment and increase research capabilities. Personal interests such as profit, competition, rivalry, or recognition need to be put aside.

It's not okay to bury what you've learned -- even if the work wasn't deemed a success. And it's not okay to put the scientific community into a position where they fear failure. It's also not okay for research to be as ruthless as the business world or 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 people 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 challenge.

For one, it's hard to implement and track. There also needs to be trust amongst those in the field that their work will be acknowledged and the extra effort of collaboration will truly pay off. There is also the issue of funding. Building processes, platforms and tools to facilitate and maintain frequent communications between researchers is expensive, and many funders don't prioritize the cost of collaboration, preferring to fund something tangible.

Despite the challenges, I remain confident that collaboration is vital to future success, and that it is not only possible but inevitable and necessary. Technology that enables communication beyond the lab walls continues to get better every year.

My vision for World Cancer Day and beyond is that research findings are shared openly -- successes and failures -- to enable ground-breaking discoveries to develop into reproducible and reputable treatments and services accessed by millions of men and women living with cancer worldwide.

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