The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) has released the AACR Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care. This first-of-its-kind report provides a comprehensive view of the burden of COVID-19 among patients with cancer; the challenges presented by the pandemic in cancer research and patient care; and the changes implemented during the pandemic that have unexpectedly improved research practices and access to care. Dr. Antoni Ribas, Professor in the Departments of Medicine, Surgery, and Molecular and Medical Pharmacology and a UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center member, is chair of the report steering committee.
Impact of COVID-19 on Patients with Cancer
Research indicates that patients with cancer are at an increased risk for COVID-19 infection and severe disease. In addition, the interruptions caused by the pandemic may contribute to worse cancer-related outcomes in the coming years. According to the report:
As outlined in the AACR Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care, the pandemic has caused significant challenges for cancer researchers, leading to research laboratory closures and clinical trial interruptions. It has negatively impacted their career development opportunities as well, especially for women and minority early-stage investigators. According to a recent survey of 66 AACR grant recipients, the results of which are included in the report:
Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Researchers
As outlined in the AACR Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care, the pandemic has caused significant challenges for cancer researchers, leading to research laboratory closures and clinical trial interruptions. It has negatively impacted their career development opportunities as well, especially for women and minority early-stage investigators.
At the same time, cancer researchers who were uniquely positioned to respond to many of the scientific questions posed by COVID-19 have used their expertise in genetics, immunology, and drug development to combat the pandemic. For example, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) unified its national network of serology centers to support research on SARS-CoV-2 immunology and to increase the nation’s serological testing capacity. Research from this network has uncovered important insights into the mechanisms of immune response to COVID-19.
What’s more, as explained in the report, decades of research into mRNA vaccines for use as cancer immunotherapies paved the way for the development of COVID-19 vaccines at an unprecedented speed. In turn, the tremendous success of the COVID-19 vaccines has renewed enthusiasm for mRNA-based cancer immunotherapies, which have the potential to revolutionize cancer treatment.
“We have tackled cancer in a science-based manner, where we define the problem, understand the processes, and then develop treatments or ways to improve health,” said Antoni Ribas, MD, PhD, FAACR, chair of both the AACR Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care Steering Committee and the AACR COVID-19 and Cancer Task Force, and immediate Past President of AACR. “The same had to be done for COVID-19. The cancer research community has generated so many tools to study cancer — sequencing, developing antibodies, pioneering targeted therapies — that have also helped researchers address COVID-19. And the best example of all is the COVID-19 mRNA vaccines.”
Lessons Learned from the Pandemic
Despite the many adverse effects of the pandemic, some of the necessary adjustments to clinical research and practice over the past two years have the potential to improve care for patients with cancer in the future. As noted in the report:
- The use of telemedicine for health care needs was 38 times higher in July 2021 than before the pandemic, an expansion that was welcomed by most Americans.
- The pandemic also required changes to the conduct of clinical trials that made such studies more patient-centric, a shift that has the potential to increase and diversify clinical trial participation, shorten the timelines for some trials, and minimize the financial and logistical burdens on clinical trial participants.
Finally, the global scientific collaborations and rapid sharing of resources and expertise necessitated by the pandemic, already a staple of the team science approach in cancer science and medicine, offer a framework for rapidly responding to future public health crises of this magnitude in the years to come.
A Call to Action
Building on these experiences, the AACR Report on the Impact of COVID-19 on Cancer Research and Patient Care includes a Call to Action with steps that Congress should take to rebuild U.S. public health infrastructure, enhance medical research, and modernize how patients receive care and enroll in clinical trials.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of basic science, cancer prevention, cancer screenings, and addressing cancer disparities,” said Margaret Foti, PhD, MD (hc), chief executive officer of AACR. “To restore the momentum against cancer, we urge Congress to continue its long-standing commitment to supporting cancer research. Robust, sustained, and predictable annual funding increases for NIH and NCI will propel future scientific advances, maximize returns from prior investments in cancer research, drive economic prosperity, and support new lifesaving cures for patients with cancer.”