Covid-19 coronavirus: Cancer breakthroughs ‘held back’ throughout pandemic

New scientific developments often require the free flow of expertise across international borders. Photo / Supplied

Scientific research in areas such as cancer has stalled since the beginning of the pandemic, says a leading New Zealand immunologist.

The loss of international forums and conferences, as well as the inability to conduct clinical trials or recruit overseas talent, has stalled scientific development in areas other than Covid-19.

Immunologist and medical director of Wellington’s Malaghan Institute Professor Graham Le Gros says the Covid-19 pandemic is blocking major breakthroughs in health science.

“Immunology looks poised to create major new breakthroughs in treating previously untreatable forms of cancer – melanoma, lung cancer, colon cancer,” he said.

“And damnit, we’re being held back … because Covid-19 is dominating everything, dominating the funding.

“We can’t do the scientific trade and exchange that we need to make the breakthroughs.”

Le Gros said these breakthroughs relied on face-to-face exchange, which often required overseas travel – especially considering New Zealand’s isolated location.

“For the trade and exchange of knowledge and technology we need to have these specialised, pressure-cooker kind of meetings, where people all go and meet each other,” he said.

Immunologist and Research director at Malaghan Institute of Medical Research Professor Graham Le Gros. Photo / SuppliedImmunologist and Research director at Malaghan Institute of Medical Research Professor Graham Le Gros. Photo / Supplied

“It’s sort of like a market or a bazaar where you have about 2000 scientists in a big hall.”

“You’re having so many individual interactions … and we haven’t found a way to do it by Zoom.”

But on top of international travel restrictions, a level 2 environment meant even national conferences often couldn’t go ahead.

“It’s the trade and exchange, of not just ideas but techniques, understanding, the ‘oh, did you read that paper, have you tried doing that technique, did you get it to work?’

“And all of a sudden, things start to work because you can talk to the people who did the stuff – that’s all on hold, even internally.”

Le Gros was concerned about what these delays would mean for scientific research as a whole.

The Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington. Photo / Supplied The Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington. Photo / Supplied

“Things just aren’t moving with that free-flow of goods and services,” he said.

“We’re getting the Covid-19 stuff through but that’s all high priority. It’s all the other stuff that’s linked to cancer – it’s putting everything else on hold.”

Closed borders were also preventing the exchange of knowledge through an international workforce, with the Malaghan Institute usually fed by a steady flow of international post-doctoral students.

Research fellow at the Malaghan Institute Dr Olivia Burn had been set to begin a post-graduate doctoral research fellowship in London on the day New Zealand went into lockdown in March 2020.

The research project, at the Frances Crick Institute in London, had been around developing a better understanding of how cancer develops – studying what happens to immune cells when they fail to recognise cancer.

Dr Olivia Burn had planned to take part in a research fellowship in London in March 2020. Photo / Supplied Dr Olivia Burn had planned to take part in a research fellowship in London in March 2020. Photo / Supplied

Burn said it was common for Kiwi scientists to then bring developments from an overseas project home to New Zealand.

But unable to travel to London in 2020, Burn had returned to work at the Malaghan Institute. The research group had also pivoted its attention to the Covid-19 pandemic.

During the pandemic New Zealand had benefitted from the return – or delayed departure – of homegrown scientists who had emigrated overseas, but closed borders had flow-on effects for new research and development.

Burn said learning new scientific skills and techniques often required face-to-face demonstration.

“I want to develop possibly a type of cancer model that we don’t have in New Zealand,” she said.

“It would be great to go over to America or even to Australia and learn the skill off some groups over there, and then bring it back here.

“It’s a lot more effective to be shown how to do something … there’s special knacks to things and you need to learn certain little motions that people do, that they don’t realise to write down in a protocol.”

Similar delays were being seen in technology itself, she said.

“We want to get all that new mRNA [vaccine] technology into New Zealand but we don’t have the ability for experts to quickly come over and show us how to use that and install it.

“If something stalls it’s a huge wait to get someone in to fix it, and that doesn’t just affect cancer research, it affects the whole institute.”

Malaghan Institute Research fellow Dr Olivia Burn. Photo / Supplied Malaghan Institute Research fellow Dr Olivia Burn. Photo / Supplied

But Burn said there had also been some wins for cancer research throughout the pandemic.

“There’s an advantage in that a lot of the technology we’re using in the Covid vaccine has now been approved and is also really beneficial for a lot of cancer therapies,” she said.

“There’s now the ability to progress those therapies into the clinic faster than when we hadn’t had the Covid vaccines approved.”

Source

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: