Research into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has helped to save millions of lives. Our Research Ethics Committees (RECs) review and approve around 6,000 research applications every year, covering a wide range of studies, many related to cancer.
To mark World Cancer Day, Professor Andrew George, immunologist and Non-Executive Director at the HRA, shares how he has seen cancer research change during his career, as well as the important role RECs play in the process.
Professor Andrew George, immunologist and Non-Executive Director at the HRA
I have seen cancer research go full circle.
When I started my PhD in the 1980s, antibodies had been used for the first time to treat cancer, first in Southampton, where I was working, and then in Stanford. In those days, antibodies had to be made specifically for each patient, and so were really personalised medicine. The difficulty of doing this for every patient meant that research moved away from this approach, and other treatments were developed that would target all patients with the same condition.
More than 30 years later, we are lucky that improvements in technology have meant that we can return to thinking about more personalised treatment designed for the individual, though this of course is a challenge to the regulation of trials.
Most clinical research is carried out by treating everyone who has a particular disease as if they were identical. This allows randomised control trials, in which groups of ‘identical’ patients are treated in different ways and the outcomes for the different populations compared. This is not the case in personalised medicine, in which the treatment is tailored to the individual.
This can also be a challenge to ethics review. Fixed protocols define what will happen to a patient, but this can be problematic if you do not know what treatment the individual is likely to get.
It is important not to stifle innovation as it can take years or even decades for new treatments to have a major impact for patients. Early studies using antibodies to treat cancer showed little benefit. However, in spite of the dark years where nothing seemed to work and many were sceptical about the potential for antibody therapy, 20-30 years later antibodies now form one of the mainstays of cancer therapy.
Health and social care research ultimately has a single aim: to bring benefits to the lives of patients and the broader public.
The HRA’s dual mission to promote and protect the rights of research participants, as well as facilitate ethical research that is of potential benefit to patients, science and society, means that advancements in cancer research can be made, while the rights, safety, dignity and wellbeing of research participants are enshrined.