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National brain tumour research funding needs to increase to £35 million a year

COVID-19 research and how this differs from brain tumour research

The eradication of disease is a universal goal, but it is seldom achieved. However, in 1980, the world was declared to be free of smallpox, arguably our biggest achievement in international public health. Smallpox was a devastating disease. Reports of its existence date back to the 3rd century BC and three out of every ten infected people died. In 1796, Edward Jenner observed that milkmaids who had been infected with cowpox – a mild disease – become immune to smallpox. Over many years, his pioneering work led to the development of a vaccine and, ultimately, the eradication of smallpox.

For most of the 20th century, the majority of deaths worldwide were due to infectious diseases. However, the biggest killers of the last 20 years – particularly in high-income countries – are non-communicable diseases, such as heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases and cancer.

We are now in the midst of the worst global pandemic seen for over 100 years. Scientific research has progressed immensely since the time of Edward Jenner yet reducing the spread of COVID-19 – and the deaths arising from it – represent an enormous challenge to science and society. Whilst antibiotics have been highly successful in treating bacterial infections, very few antiviral drugs have been developed. Therefore, the most important interventions we have currently are to break the chain of virus transmission.

Since the first signs of the novel coronavirus emerged, the international research community has made significant steps in understanding the virus, preventing its spread and treating patients who have become infected. Early on, the genome of COVID-19 was sequenced revealing the 30,000 letters that contain instructions for the virus to infect and replicate. The structure of the virus has been worked out, revealing how it attaches and enters cells in the human body. By the end of April, over 1,800 new clinical trials had begun, investigating new diagnostics and treatments for COVID-19. In addition, over 90 new vaccines are in development, 14 of which were in clinical trials by the end of April.

This progress would not be possible without the collective efforts of academia, industry, government and charity and a significant amount of investment. The challenges we face have really galvanised efforts across different sectors and countries. Nevertheless, it will take time to bring this disease under control, through social distancing, accurate testing, effective treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine.

So, why can’t we do the same for brain tumours? On the whole, our approach to tackling brain tumours differs considerably from combating a virus. Firstly, there are over 130 different types of brain tumour, each one requiring a different approach to diagnosis and treatment. We do not know what causes brain tumours, however a combination of genetic, lifestyle and environmental factors are thought to play a role. Human cells are far more complicated than a virus. Each cell in our bodies contains genetic instructions encoded in 3 billion letters – 100,000 times more than the genome for COVID-19. Furthermore, the average human brain contains about 100 billion cells. Identifying clues in our genes is like looking for a needle in a haystack!

Despite the differences between infectious diseases and cancer, we hope that lessons will be learned from the pandemic that are applicable to brain tumour research. For instance, we hope to see greater cooperation and support from government and industry in developing new ways to treat brain tumours. Whilst the eradication of cancer may be unlikely, increasing the proportion of people surviving a brain tumour to the levels seen for many other cancer types would save thousands of lives each year.

As we emerge from this pandemic, we need to accelerate progress into finding a cure for brain tumours. Brain Tumour Research will continue to put pressure on Government and larger charities to increase the national investment in brain tumour research to £35 million to bring parity with other cancers such as breast and leukaemia.  We will keep fighting until we have effective treatments and ultimately a cure!

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