Rare Cancer Research During COVID-19

May 5, 2020 | Research & Innovation

By TCF research grant recipients Nabeel Bardeesy, PhD, of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center,  and Adam Bass, MD of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Since 2010, TargetCancer Foundation has supported Dr. Bardeesy’s work in cholangiocarcinoma, and Dr. Bass’ work in gastroesophageal cancer

Interruption and uncertainty

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a marked effect on cancer research, with significant disruptions in laboratory work and strain on researchers, but also with some unexpected outcomes as well. Of course, there are also tremendous uncertainties— funding sources are already withdrawing commitments, trainees careers’ are being upended, and there will be significant financial losses from laboratory budgets from the need to recreate resources and restart expensive experiments.

For most cancer research laboratories, only experiments that would be difficult or impossible to restart are permitted; and few members of any lab are allowed to work in the laboratory, typically for a restricted amount of time and in single person shifts. This has forced scientists to make very difficult decisions about what studies to continue. Many important studies have had to be put on hold with considerable loss in terms of prior investments in time and resources. Those who do come to the lab are tasked with helping cover the responsibilities of the whole group.

However, this has actually made researchers feel more connected and created a spirit of remarkable teamwork. Also, researchers are finding that they have time to organize and think about their prior research data in a deeper way. This is resulting in lots of new ideas that can be tested in the future.

Unexpected advantages for the future

Not all cancer research is being slowed down by the pandemic. A major area in the field involves the study of large sets of data, such as the genetic changes in tumors, in computer-based studies. This work has continued uninterrupted to experts in the area, but also, many other scientists are using the current time to take courses and learn how to perform computational studies themselves.

Other unexpected results have happened within the cancer research community as well. Some cancer scientists have found that the skill sets and research tools that have developed can help make discoveries relevant to the coronavirus, and have been given permission to work at full capacity on this area. More generally, there is presently the opportunity to expand one’s understanding of different fields that enriches the work of any laboratory. Web-based scientific seminars from around the world are available and widely viewed.

Overall, cancer researchers are reflecting more on where their laboratories can have the maximum impact. Many researchers feel that they will be returning to their work with renewed focus and prioritization on the most important questions.