In the last few years, cancer research has been hindered by the COVID-19 pandemic, Brexit, the war in Ukraine, and tensions between world superpowers. These events may continue to have a negative impact on the field for years to come, according to experts.
Cancer researchers were hit particularly hard in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, with clinical trial approval and recruitment often paused or reduced significantly.1-3 Many academic research labs around the world shut down, and experiments were put on pause or abandoned entirely.4-6
Research labs that used animal models all had to downsize their colonies significantly, said Lisa Coussens, MD, PhD, of Oregon Health & Sciences University in Portland.
“So often years and years of breeding work to build up and develop colonies was lost,” Dr Coussens said. “Rebooting these types of studies is not trivial, partly because grant money was already spent.”
Some types of experiments could be paused by freezing samples or cells, and some labs allowed a skeleton staff to process and store clinically critical samples and maintain animal colonies at minimal levels.4-6 However, much lab-based research effectively ground to a halt. This was compounded by shortages of sterile lab plasticware, gloves, and reagents, as these resources were diverted to clinical and testing applications.7
“There are studies that won’t get done now because I don’t have the time left in my career to do them again, nor the funds,” Dr Coussens said. “But I think the biggest impact more directly resulting from the lab closures has been with the junior faculty who endured such significant disruption so early on in their careers.”
The disruption for early-stage researchers added to difficulties that senior scientists in the United States and further afield were already experiencing recruiting postdocs and technical staff in academic research.8 In health and medicine, many are moving to industry and even non-scientific careers, partly for the increased pay and better career prospects. Although this issue was present before the pandemic, the situation has worsened since 2020.
“A lot of young people left the field,” Dr Coussens said. “Some postdocs decided to abandon an academic postdoc during the pandemic because if they were here on a visa with a limited amount of funding to support their career in the US and the lab was going to be closed for 6 to 9 months, they went home.”
Impact of the War in Ukraine
Another event that has had a negative impact on cancer research is the war in Ukraine. In February 2022, Russia began an invasion of Ukraine, leading to an ongoing war in which Ukraine has experienced more than 23,000 recorded civilian casualties, including more than 8800 deaths.9
Cancer treatments, trials, and logistics needed to deliver medical supplies and drugs have been impacted by the war.10-13
“Ukraine was a significant contributor to industry-sponsored clinical cancer trials. Those trials largely shut down, and this has had a reverberating effect on the cancer research ecosystem,” said Richard Sullivan, MD, PhD, of King’s College London in the United Kingdom.
Ukraine was one of the highest contributors to cancer clinical trials among lower-middle income countries, just behind India, which has a substantially larger population.14 When the war began, Ukraine had 245 active pharmaceutical cancer clinical trials, of which 127 were actively recruiting on Clinicaltrials.gov. Since then, more than 1000 hospitals and health care settings have been damaged, with some completely destroyed.
Russia also contributed to hundreds of oncology clinical trials, but many large pharmaceutical companies decided to reduce their operations in the country, including, in some cases, pausing recruitment or not starting new trials.15 Therefore, the future of cancer trials in Russia is uncertain.