Valerie Clark
May 11, 2012

Global cancer prevention made possible by collaborative research

The World Health Organization is one of many global groups fighting cancer.The most recent research coming out of the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) reported that one in six cancers worldwide are caused by infections. This single finding created a big buzz in news headlines earlier this week; there were millions of reports containing headlines about cancers caused by infections. I wanted to know more about the context of the research, and how the findings might be applied to solve the global cancer epidemic. 

To begin, I’ll summarize the research findings to bring you up to speed (in case you missed out earlier this week). The IARC, which is affiliated with the World Health Organization (WHO), conducted a study to see how many cancers are caused by infections, identify the specific bacteria and cancer types involved, and present the research in light of a global scale. And yes, the IARC determined that one in six cancers is indeed caused by an infection, and the most affected countries are less-developed areas where modern medicine is in short supply. In countries like the US and Australia, where cancer prevention and management tools are readily available, the rate of infection-caused cancer was the lowest in the world; poorer countries in Africa had the highest rate. No surprise there. The predominant cancer types were also the obvious ones -- Hepatitis B and C and human papilloma virus (HPV) -- which are known to be caused by infection. 

The research easily supports the need for better cancer management and prevention tools in less developed countries where the incidence of infection-caused cancer is highest. The WHO is tasked with monitoring and assessing health trends within the United Nations (UN) system.  Since 1948, this organization has been involved with shaping health research agendas, providing leadership on global health matters, articulating evidence-based policy options, and more. Since the IARC is a pocket within WHO, the context of the latest research falls neatly within their mission.  But, the IARC is “not involved with implementing cancer control measures or research and treatment of cancer patients.” Clearly, the IARC and WHO are more involved with policy matters, and that’s for a good reason. 

Turns out, there are several international research organizations tackling various aspects of cancer, and there is a lot of overlap. The rest of this article summarizes the collaborative research efforts which are advancing cancer research on a global scale. I looked at six different international cancer research groups today, and found the one unifying objective in the mission statements of all six organizations was to study the causes and prevention of cancer. Beyond that, each organization has its own “niche” within the cancer market. 

The one thing that is crystal clear is the global cancer epidemic requires transnational collaboration because it’s a worldwide problem, and the information superhighway we call the Internet has catalyzed the advancement of international cancer research in recent years. 

International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) – This is an arm of WHO, and is dedicated to promoting international collaboration in cancer research.  The IARC has a special interest in conducting research in low- and middle-income countries plagued by cancer. They aim to be a global reference for cancer information. They host a global cancer “biobank” which houses 10 million samples for 1 million subjects, and these samples are made available for scientists to apply innovative lab-based methods for the advancement of cancer research. The IARC also provides fellowships, courses and publications related to epidemiology and cancer registration.  The IARC’s relationship with WHO provides a direct pathway to translate research findings into policy. The organization staffs over 300 scientists from 50 countries in seven sections of cancer study:

1. Mechanisms of carcinogenesis
2. Molecular pathology
3. Infections
4. Environment and radiation
5. Nutrition and metabolism
6. Genetics
7. Early detection and prevention

International Cancer Research Partnership (ICRP) – The ICRP is an alliance of cancer organizations across multiple countries, but predominantly US-based organizations. Partners include the American Institute of Cancer Research and the American Cancer Society (among many others). They have a unique data management system called the CSO (Common Scientific  Outline) to pool data from all over the world, which they claim represents $12 million in grant-funded research from 55 organizations. They also have seven sections of cancer study.

1. Biology
2. Etiology (causes)
3. Prevention
4. Early detection, diagnosis, and prognosis
5. Treatment
6. Cancer control, survivorship, and outcomes
7. Scientific models

American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) – This organization is primarily involved with funding cancer research worldwide, on a project basis. They are especially interested in basic research as opposed to clinical research. They are involved with cancer studies in 22 countries, including the US, Australia, Sweden and Israel. They don’t employ any scientists or conduct research themselves; rather, they raise funds and award those funds to deserving scientists around the world who are passionate about finding causes and preventing cancer. 

World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF International) – Simply put, the WCRF “leads and unifies a global network of cancer charities dedicated to the prevention and control of cancer by means of healthy food and nutrition, physical activity, and body weight.” They don’t seem much different from some other international cancer research groups, but they do have a special focus on lifestyle-related causes of cancer. 

International Cancer Alliance for Research and Education (ICARE) – This organization has carved out a clear niche in the cancer research market. They “support cutting edge cancer research and provide high-quality, focused, user-friendly, cancer information to each patient as well as their physician on an on-going, and on a personalized basis.” 

So, it seems the need for international collaboration for cancer research initiatives is being met by a number of different groups across the globe, each with its own unique approach to advancing the science. WHO and IARC are directly involved in policy matters, the ICRP is dedicated to pooling data worldwide, the AIRC funds much of the research, WRCF International focuses specifically on a lifestyle-based solution for cancer prevention, and ICARE is working to match patients and doctors with the best solution. 

To quote WHO, “in the 21st century, health is a shared responsibility involving equitable access to essential care and collective defense against transnational threats.” Well said, WHO. With the increased use of the Internet, the international population is more connected than ever before. Although we may be connected through a computer, we are also connected on a biological level.  Threats overseas and in poorer countries may spread and cause unprecedented health problems worldwide. This is a concept WHO refers to as health security -- and it’s important we use all resources available to strengthen our defense against the global cancer epidemic.