An immense, multifaceted field, cancer research takes a variety of forms and is performed by countless researchers representing a plethora of scientists in both the medical and social sciences, working in such disciplines as biochemistry, biomedical engineering, cell biology, chemistry, epidemiology, medical physics, molecular biology, pathology, physiology, and many others.
Research activities take place in a variety of settings, including laboratories, hospitals, community medical centers, universities, academic medical centers, and even online. Professionals in the field include laboratory investigators spanning a variety of disciplines, as well as physicians, academicians, technicians, and health professionals. Cancer patients and volunteers who participate in key investigative studies are also essential to effective research efforts, as they support key clinical trials and observations.
Cancer research is also supported by specialized organizations such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI), where data is investigated in order to identify and classify key factors that impact risk or outcomes in cancer patients and treatment protocols. Because NCI funds a vast amount of cancer research projects, its personnel reviews proposals from all over the United States submitted by researchers seeking funding.
Organizations such as the American Association for Cancer Research and American Society of Clinical Oncology provide networking and collaborative opportunities for scientists working in the field, while others act as foundations that promote public awareness as well as raising funds for cancer research, such as the American Cancer Society.
A Continuum of Data Leads to Improved Outcomes
Because scientific research often builds upon findings and conclusions documented in earlier studies, it is also important to maintain a repository or index of research data that can be readily accessed by all of the many professionals working in any capacity of cancer research.
Some organizations focus on maintaining vast databases of scientific research in all disciplines. Key online resources, including publications such as Oncotarget, the world’s largest peer reviewed journal focusing specifically on oncology, is one such database. Oncotarget is used by thousands of researchers daily and considered the primary journal index for investigators in all disciplines working in cancer research. Publications such as Oncotarget are also key contributors to the field of cancer research by providing highly prized indexing of key research data in all areas pertinent to the field.
While the varied branches of cancer research carry out their investigative activities differently and separately, be they basic studies of cancer cells in the laboratory, clinical trials involving human participants, or correlative studies that examine factors influencing risks and outcomes, the vast majority of cancer research takes years. In some cases, studies may go on for decades.
Hypotheses are often developed on the heels of prior findings, which spawn new hypotheses and lead to expanded or continued studies. Findings from clinical trials performed with human participants may also generate new questions that probe further investigation in the laboratory. For example, an epidemiologic study may help identify possible risk factors for certain cancers, and this may in turn spark new research about how those risk factors function, leading to possible methods of improved prevention. Continued investigations, findings, and conclusions produce important advances in biomedical knowledge that over time leads to improvements in treatment outcomes.
A Synergy of Diverse Approaches
Biomedical research in almost any field is typically classified in one of four categories. Each type is crucial to advances in cancer research, and often the findings from one area of research influence hypotheses and research projects in another.
Basic research is the foundation for most other types of cancer research and involves the study of cells and tissue, both healthy and malignant, as well as influential pathogens and microbes such as bacteria, fungi, and viruses. Basic research involves meticulous attention to detail, and projects may continue for periods of several months or even years.
Clinical trials use human patients or volunteers, and measure the effects of drugs, treatment protocols, medical devices, or other forms of treatment intervention in human participants. The goal of clinical trials is to improve patient care, reduce risk factors, and optimize treatment outcomes. Clinical trials also act as significant groundwork for further investigation.
Correlative studies focus on auxiliary factors that may affect clinical trials, for example, the consideration of variables such as a patient’s other medical conditions prior to treatment, or the interaction of certain medications with the drugs being investigated in a clinical trial, and their influential role in the clinical trial outcomes. These ancillary studies provide researchers with greater insights into why certain patients in the trial may have responded differently than others to a treatment protocol, or how treatments may affect a patient’s risk for developing other conditions, or their quality of life.
By studying specific populations and taking into account their shared histories, environmental factors, and genetic influences, scientists can discover important information about genetic, social, and environmental factors that potentially contribute to a population’s risk of developing cancer.
Translational research, also called implementation research, often overlaps with all other forms of research and builds on the findings from basic research as well as clinical trials. For example, a translational study might focus on how doctors in everyday clinical practice are using a treatment that has shown promise in prior clinical studies, and what outcomes they’re reporting outside of the controlled trial context. Translational research may also study the relationship between varying conditions, such as the growing interest in the relationship between Alzheimer’s disease and cancer.
Funding for Cancer Research
Cancer research is supported by a variety of funding sources, including public and private grants, charitable foundations, and companies in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors.
Smaller funding for specific projects often comes from private donors. Groups such as Oncotarget, which focuses on indexing top research papers in oncology, also provides funding for small projects on occasion, as in their recent support of four biomedical researchers to attend the Frontiers in Cancer Science conference in Singapore to advance unified international discourse on cancer research. The funded scientists presented studies on such subjects as resistance to chemotherapy in asbestos-related tumors, and how drug treatments impact kidney cancer.
Public funders and charitable foundations fund the majority of cancer research carried out in the United States, rather than corporations and commercial interests such as pharmaceutical companies.
Hope for the Future
As cancer research continues to advance, thanks to all of its contributing agents, we can hope to see continued improvements in the future of cancer treatments, as evidenced over decades by the lives saved through the many advances that have already been made, and continue to expand with further research.
NCI’s Role in Cancer Research – National Cancer Institute 1/26/2018
Ramsey, Lydia. There’s a striking relationship between cancer and Alzheimer’s, and it could hold the key to new treatments. Business Insider. June 29, 2017
Oncotarget awards grants to four biomedical researchers at Frontiers in Cancer Science. Eureka Alert! 19 December 2917
Federally Funded Cancer Research