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Small percentage of cancer research funding goes on treatment, study finds

New research has revealed that only a small percentage of cancer funding is invested in primary treatments.

Cancer is one of the world’s biggest killers. Billions of pounds are invested in research each year to find new ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating the disease.

A new study by researchers at the University of Southampton (UoS) and University Hospital Southampton (UHS) with Queen's University Belfast analysed almost £20 billion of investment.

They found most funding goes towards very early research. This can mean there is little direct benefit for patients.

Researchers published their findings in The Lancet Oncology.

Global health concern

In 2020, there were almost 20 million new cancer cases around the world. By 2040, that number is expected to reach 28 million.

The research team collected data on public and charitable investments between 2016 and 2020. This amounted to £19.7 billion of investment across 66,388 research grants.

Breast cancer and blood cancers, such as leukaemia, received the most funding. Lung and thyroid cancers were among the least funded.

Just 0.5% of cancer funding had a primary focus on lower-income countries.

Failing to reach patients

The analysis found that only a small percentage of cancer research funding is invested into primary treatments. This includes just 1.4% for surgery and 2.8% for radiotherapy.

The majority (73.5%) goes towards pre-clinical research. The hope is that findings from this early-stage research will lead to new or better treatments for cancer. However, it could be many years before they are in routine use.

Prof Ramsey Cutress, a UoS professor of breast surgery and UHS consultant surgeon at the NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, co-led the study. Prof Cutress said:

“Cancer research has led to impressive improvements in survival and outcomes.

“However, we found less than 5% of all cancer research funding is invested in surgery, radiotherapy and global health studies.

“This is despite primary treatments for most solid cancers including surgery and radiotherapy, and much of the worldwide cancer burden being felt in low and middle income countries.”

The researchers also demonstrated cancer research investment is decreasing year on year. A larger drop in 2020 corresponds with the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Informing policies

The study’s findings could inform the future of cancer research funding.

Dr Michael Head, Senior Clinical Research Fellow at UoS and study co-lead, said:

“There will be long-term consequences of the pandemic on other areas of health, including cancer. We need to understand the worst of the knowledge gaps, which we can potentially fill with new research.

“Our analysis can help cancer experts better set priority areas for funding, which will benefit future cancer patients.”

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