Cambridge Professor stars in Cancer Research UK appeal

Professor Richard Gilbertson
Centre Director Prof Richard Gilbertson stars in a new Cancer Research UK TV appeal urging support for the charity to continue its life-saving work in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With fundraising events cancelled and the charity’s shops having been closed for the last three months, Professor Richard Gilbertson, Director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre and a Senior Group Leader researching children's cancer at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, has stepped forward to help highlight the devastating loss of funding for vital research caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

The film features a direct plea for support from Professor Gilbertson, along with clips of cancer patients and survivors in lockdown – many of whom are self-isolating or shielding to protect their health.

For over 35 years Professor Gilbertson has worked on the prevention, detection and treatment of cancer but his work almost came to a halt because of the devastating impact of COVID-19. Three months after his team of world-renowned scientists hung up their lab coats during an enforced period of lockdown, their life-saving work is slowly starting up again.

Professor Gilbertson, who helped devise a plan with colleagues to ensure scientists stayed safe as they returned to work, said: “It’s not just lab research that’s been affected, it’s everything. Patients are always first and foremost in our minds, which is why the impact of COVID-19 on clinical trials is particularly worrying. Most clinical trials stopped with COVID-19. We stopped enrolling patients onto clinical trials, and that was partly because the ‘machine’ that supports clinical trials was switched to COVID-19, and partly because of the capacity of hospitals – so that’s had a devastating effect for patients who would benefit from those trials.”

Professor Gilbertson said that while a lot of researchers have been able to analyse results and plan future experiments at home during lockdown, they were itching to get back in the lab. “It’s going to take scientists a while to get back up and running with a lot of experiments taking possibly up to a year to build up again,” he added.

“The shutdown has been pretty devastating, it has meant that lab research is essentially halted, scientists haven’t been able to get in the lab for a few months. Many researchers work with cells to study cancer and their work has quite literally been frozen in time. When you shutdown, you have to take the cells and freeze them to minus 80 and then they stay in suspended animation for the period of the lockdown.

“The cells researchers use to study cancer can take weeks or months to grow. It’s a bit like a garden, you plant seeds and tend the garden and watch things grow in it, and only then are you ready to harvest. Scientists have to carefully grow their cellular garden, making sure they’re healthy before they begin their experiments, and, while they still have the seeds for their research in the freezer, it will take a while before they’re ready. That’s why shutting down and then reopening is not an on off thing, it will take us a while to get back to previous productivity.”

Cancer Research UK’s work into the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer has been at the heart of the progress that has seen survival in the UK double in the last forty years.

Thanks to the generosity of its supporters, the charity currently funds around 50% of all cancer research in the UK. However, as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic, the charity is now preparing for a 30 per cent fall in income in the 2020/21 financial year – putting life-saving research at risk.

Professor Gilbertson said he wanted the message in the TV ad to be clear and direct – to save lives tomorrow, Cancer Research UK needs the public’s support today. He’s calling on people across Cambridgeshire to donate now and support the charity’s pledge to carry on the fight against cancer.

He added: “We need your support now more than ever. Without it, we’re lost. We announced last week that because of the devasting impact of COVID-19 on our income, we could be forced to cut £150 million per year from our research funding. If you’re a new junior investigator, or a post doc, you’re getting to a point in your career where you need to decide if you’re going to stay in science. In a time of uncertainty, when you don’t know whether there will be grants available, that could sway people’s decisions, and they may go after a different career path. This could mean some of the brightest scientists leave academic research, which would be a huge loss to cancer research.”

Last year Cancer Research UK was able to spend nearly £56 million in the East of England on some of the UK’s leading scientific and clinical research and, with many experiments placed on hold or stopped, Professor Gilbertson is determined his team get back up and running as soon as possible.

He added: “With social distancing rules, we’re having to work back from how many people different departments can accommodate at any one time. We’re starting to think about who should be in the building and why they should be in the building. And that’s not a bad thing – COVID-19 has really made us think hard about prioritising the most important experiments.”

Professor Gilbertson is particularly excited about two projects he has been working on. “I’ve been going after a particular type of brain tumour – medulloblastoma – for 30 years, ever since I first saw a child die of it. We’re on the cusp of developing a kinder treatment that we hope would spare children getting radiotherapy, which would be absolutely fantastic. So we’re really chomping at the bit to get that going.

“The other project is a study that aims to understand more about how and why tumours spread to other parts of the body. We think we’ve uncovered a mechanism that governs metastasis, which would be really exciting.”

But Professor Gilbertson knows that getting these projects back up and running doesn’t just rely on getting scientists back in the lab. It also relies on donations from supporters, he continued: “I don’t think supporters hear it enough from researchers, but thank you so much for your support. The money you give helps to keep the lights on, keep our machines running, it means we can do those clinical trials, to find new treatments.

“If it wasn’t for that pound you were giving, none of that would happen, it would all go away. And with COVID-19, there’s a possibility that some of it could go away, so we need your support now more than ever.”

Patrick Keely, Cancer Research UK spokesperson for Cambridgeshire, said: “We’re grateful to Professor Gilbertson for playing a starring role in our appeal and helping to underline the reality of the current situation. 

“We’ve always said ‘together we will beat cancer’. But the truth is, COVID-19 has slowed us down. Right now, clinical trials are being postponed and we’re having to delay vital research.

“But we will never stop. Around 35,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every year in the East of England*, which is why we are absolutely determined to continue to create better cancer treatments for tomorrow. However, we can’t do it alone.

“Every step our scientists take towards beating cancer relies on our supporters. So, whether they donate, sign up to Race for Life at Home or shop at our stores as they re-open – with the help of people in Cambridgeshire we believe that together we will still beat cancer.”

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*Based on the average annual number of new cases of cancer (ICD10 C00-C97 excl. C44) diagnosed in the East of England between 2014-2016
Source: These data were extracted from the Public Health England’s Cancer Analysis System, snapshot CAS8038. Accessed 07/12/2018. This work is only possible because of data from the cancer registry, which is routinely collected by the NHS as part of patient care.

2 Jul 2020