Rare cancers need a Silicon Valley approach to investment
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Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
The writer is a former president of Imperial College London
During my time at Imperial College London, Stanford, MIT and Pennsylvania’s Lehigh, I have seen the positive impact of the work done by some of the greatest researchers in the world and how it can improve people’s lives. But the benefits of such work came into starker view for me when I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2021.
Under-investment in research on this disease has contributed to a shocking survival rate. Sadly, there are several other cancers — including those of the brain, liver, stomach, oesophagus and lung — that have also been left behind, with dismal survival rates below 25 per cent. Known as less survivable cancers, these make up 20 per cent of cases in the UK, yet cause 40 per cent of the deaths.
Too often, researchers and funders shift their focus elsewhere. And while large projects and research groups have made tremendous progress in many other areas of cancer, now is the time to focus on the recalcitrant and less survivable varieties where the big breakthroughs are yet to be made.
The good news is that investment makes a difference. The doubling of government and research funders’ investment in leukaemia has meant that survival rates are now four times higher than in the 1970s, helping to deliver better diagnostic tools and treatments such as highly targeted drugs. The UK aims to lead the world in research, development and innovation. To do so, we must address the woeful lack of research funding and poor outcomes for the less survivable cancers.
In March, the government launched a plan to “cement the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower by 2030”, suggesting “testing different models of funding science . . . working with industry and philanthropic partners to open up new funding”. One such test succeeded when a recent philanthropic donation of $20mn to UK Biobank, the world-leading biomedical database, was matched by the government to help the revolution in genetic science and medicine. Clearly, this plan can work; now we must rapidly move forward with other partnerships leveraging the support of philanthropists.
There is a wealth of potential partners among the many philanthropists who support small charities, which play a critical role providing early funds for research in less survivable cancers. The flexibility of these charities nurtures inventions, innovations and talent but their size means they cannot do this alone. We should instead test new funding models by building partnerships between them and government.
One new model would be to take a Silicon Valley approach. In entrepreneurial ventures, small amounts of early-stage funding, known as angel investments, support innovative, highly uncertain work. When the entity is ready to scale up, larger amounts are sought.
In the same way, scale-up funding for small charity research projects needs to be catalysed by further investment. In the UK, this must come from government support. We should create an annual “cancer survivability fund” of £50mn to start a venture-funding type approach. Government and partners will choose promising early-stage research in less survivable cancers and investment will accelerate results. Unlike Silicon Valley angels, charity donors will be rewarded not by financial returns, but by research advances and better patient outcomes.
There are innovations ready for scale-up investment. For example, thanks to support from Pancreatic Cancer UK and others, Imperial College’s Professor George Hanna has developed an exciting new low-cost screening approach for pancreatic cancer through a simple breath test that can dramatically improve outcomes.
An entrepreneurial, rapid-response approach is urgently needed to accelerate such breakthroughs for less survivable cancers. We can change the outcomes for these deadliest of cancers. But we must act now.