Coronavirus slowing critical cancer research, screenings

BOSTON — Research and treatment of COVID-19 have justifiably been a primary focus of the medical community this past year.

As the pandemic drags on, the war on cancer is falling behind according to doctors and researchers on the front lines. They say lifesaving work is getting slowed down.

Last spring many labs that focus on cancer research had to shut down. Clinical trials often had to be stopped or suspended.

“I think there has been a profound impact on cancer research,” said Dr. Rebecca Heist, an oncologist and the associate director of clinical research at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

The Institute of Cancer Research in London found researchers believe scientific advances are now delayed by 18 months.

“There’s a real human consequence here because cancer doesn’t wait,” added Dr. Heist.

Many projects are now running again, but the future is still uncertain according to Dr. Heist. “It’s hard to know, and even when you make up time, you can’t create lost time. I think we all feel a sense of urgency in the cancer world where we know that frankly, today is too late. We needed things discovered yesterday.”

But research is expensive, and fundraising is more challenging in the pandemic.

“We’re unable to fund nearly as many of the best and brightest,” said Dr. Mark Goldberg who’s on the national board of directors for the American Cancer Society. “The pandemic has led to over a $200 million dollar decrease in fundraising for the American Cancer Society this year which is over 30% of the overall budget.”

While that will impact future research, Dr. Goldberg also worries about patients not getting preventative care today. “Between March and July of 2020, screenings for breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and lung cancer had decreased anywhere from 56%-85%.”

Dr. Goldberg says that means cancer will be discovered in patients much later when they’re harder to treat and the outcomes aren’t nearly as good.

The current COVID surge is making Dr. Heist anxious, wondering what will happen in the coming months.

“We were actually frankly just talking about this in a meeting earlier today and really trying to maintain all of the resources that we need, and the staffing that we need, in order to keep the clinical trials going so our patients can continue to enroll in them,” said Dr. Heist. “Certainly, in the immediate couple of months coming up, it looks to be very, very trying times.”

While clinical trials for new drugs and treatments are considered research, Heist said that these are the only path forward for many patients.

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