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30 Sep 2014

Support for research into cancer prevention has stagnated despite evidence that half of all cases of the deadly disease could have been avoided.

Of more than $1 billion pumped into cancer research between 2006 and 2011, just $20 million went on work to help prevent the disease, a national audit of cancer research funding has found.

The report, prepared by Cancer Australia, found that in the past decade cancer research funding has substantially outpaced inflation, boosting the nation’s research effort.

Less than $300 million was committed to cancer research project in the three years to 2005, but in the three years to 2011 this had swelled to almost $600 million.

Research into the biology of cancer claimed the biggest slice of research funding, accounting for more than third of all spending between 2006 and 2011,  while inquiries into treatment attracted a quarter of total funding, and work on the early detection, diagnosis and prognosis of cancer received around 15 per cent of funds. By comparison, research into prevention received just 2 per cent.

Cancer Australia said relative lack of funding for cancer prevention research could be explained in part by the fact cancer shared a number of risk factors in common with other conditions such as cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, so research into mitigating these may not have been captured by the audit.

It added that some inquiries into cancer vaccines may have been classified as research into treatment.

Nonetheless, the Council said there were strong reasons to boost prevention research.

“It is estimated that, worldwide, more than 50 per cent of cancer can be prevented, and many preventable risk factors for cancer are common with other chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes,” it said. “Development of international initiatives to fund cancer prevention research, and initiatives which bring together funders of chronic diseases to co-fund prevention research, could help to reduce the burden of disease of cancers and other chronic diseases.”

Among cancer types, breast cancer claimed the largest share of research funding, accounting for almost a third of funds in the early 200s before easing down to a quarter by early this decade.

Investigations into cancers of the blood attracted the next highest level of support (17 per cent of total cancer research funding), followed by colorectal cancers (14 per cent), genito-urinary cancers (13 per cent), skin cancer (10 per cent) and lung cancer (5 per cent).

Chair of Cancer Australia’s Advisory Council, Professor Jim Bishop, said the information provided by the audit would help identify ways to optimise investment in cancer research, including through targeting funding and fostering national and international research collaborations.

While charitable foundations engage in high-profile campaigns to encourage individual donations for cancer research, the audit found that the Federal Government was by far the most important source of funds.

The National Health and Medical Research Council allocated $568 million (56 per cent of total funding) to cancer research projects between 2003 and 2011, and other Federal Government sources provided a further $97 million.

The next biggest contribution came from Cancer Councils ($96 million, 9 per cent); followed by State and Territory governments ($75 million, 8 per cent); and charitable Cancer Foundations such as the National Breast Cancer Foundation and the Leukaemia Foundation ($74 million, 7 per cent). Direct donations from philanthropists (as opposed to those funnelled through charities) amounted to just $2.6 million over the eight-year period.

Cancer Council Australia Chief Executive Officer Professor Ian Olver said a three-fold increase funding for in tumour-specific research projects was promising, but needed to continue.

“The trend towards a relative increase in funding for research into cancers that are particularly difficult to treat, such as lung cancer, is encouraging,” he said. “We need to continue and accelerate that trend, even though difficult-to-treat cancers pose the greatest challenges to researchers.”

Professor Olver said the relative stagnation of funding for research into prevention highlighted the importance of supporting non-government and not-for-profit organisations that were leading work in areas such as skin cancer prevention.

 “A lot of prevention science and research in areas such as survivorship and patient support has no commercial application, so it is important to have a strong not-for-profit sector driving that research,” he said.

Adrian Rollins

Published: 30 Sep 2014