Cardinal Turkson (L) with conference participants in the 'Sala Marconi' Cardinal Turkson (L) with conference participants in the 'Sala Marconi' 

‘Inequality a major obstacle to cancer research & treatment’

The Pontifical Academy of Sciences hosts a two-day conference to discuss global inequalities in cancer research and prevention, with high-level oncologists calling for better distribution of the vast scientific advances achieved in recent decades.

By Devin Watkins

Over 40 of the world’s leading cancer researchers and physicians gathered at the Vatican’s Casina Pio IV on Thursday and Friday for a conference entitled “Strategies to decrease inequalities in cancer therapeutics/care and prevention”.

The event was the first-ever global academic conference hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, in conjunction with the European Academy of Cancer Sciences and supported by the Swedish Embassy to the Holy See.

On Friday, Cardinal Peter Turkson, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, accompanied a delegation of participants to the headquarters of Vatican Radio – Vatican News for a press conference to highlight the event’s proceedings.

Benefits of science unequally distributed

According to Prof. Joachim Von Braun, president of the Academy, the conference drew inspiration from Pope Francis’ message for the 30th World Day of the Sick celebrated in 2022, a portion of which reads: “Let us thank the Lord for the progress that medical science has made, especially in recent times…”

Prof. Von Braun noted that immense progress has been made in recent years in cancer research and therapies. However, he added, the benefits of better science have been unequally distributed across nations, and even within countries.

Inequality, therefore, can cause real problems in diagnosing and treating cancer, since scientific advances fail to filter out to low- and middle-income countries, and at times even out of larger cities and treatment centers in the rich-world.

“If patients don’t have access to improved research, then it creates a problem for people and societies, because those worst-affected live in developing countries,” said Prof. Michael Baumann, CEO of the German Cancer Research Center. “The outcomes of cancer, including early detection and survival, vary greatly, especially between different countries and even within countries.”

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Balancing justice and intellectual property rights

The conference sought to take the first steps toward overcoming the unequal distribution of scientific progress by promoting the transfer of data and expertise to low- and middle-income countries and by advising governments regarding healthcare policy.

Prof. Mammen Chandy, with Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, represented the world’s second-most populous country at the Vatican conference.

India, he said, has the potential to provide its residents with good healthcare and adequate cancer treatment, but he noted that the world must first start to view equity as a central issue in cancer research.

“If our resources are properly distributed, then we can meet the healthcare needs of children who require vaccines as well as people with cancer,” said Prof. Chandy. “The last decade has seen vast advances in cancer therapy, and making a timely and precise diagnosis is extremely important in cancer treatment.”

Yet, added Prof. Chandy, governments must weight protections for intellectual property rights with justice for people in other nations who have been diagnosed with cancer.

Cancer no longer a death sentence

One proven method of providing both better treatment and more effective research is to create “Comprehensive Cancer Centers”, in which research is combined with treatment, education, and outreach.

Patients treated in these facilities are 10-15 percent more likely to survive cancer, noted Prof. Baumann. However, the geographical distribution of cancer centers varies greatly across countries, with some areas hosting multiple such facilities and other places lacking them entirely.

Prof. Douglas Lowy, interim director of the US National Cancer Institute, highlighted a promising statistic in cancer therapy. Five-year survival rates of cancer have increased from around 50 percent in the mid-1970s to about 68 percent currently.

However, he added, “cancer is terrible!” Far too many people die from it each year—some 600,000 in the United States—and global projections forecast that the majority of cancer diagnoses will occur in low- and middle-income countries within a decade.

“Inequality and a lack of access to healthcare is an important issue in the United States and globally, and has a major negative impact on cancer development and mortality,” said Prof. Lowy.

Building on Church’s history of helping people

The conference also sought to create networks among cancer researchers and find ways to disseminate scientific progress more equitably.

Education and training of young scientists and doctors can play a critical role in spreading advances to developing countries, through the twinning of institutions, for example.

Asked about the reasons the conference was held in the Vatican, Prof. Lowy highlighted the personal nature of cancer: “Cancer is someone’s brother, sister, mother, father, or child, not just a number.”

“In the larger context,” he said, “the Catholic Church has a long and strong history of helping people throughout the world.”

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24 February 2023, 14:57