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May is National Cancer Research Month!

Research has played a powerful role in developing new understandings of how and why different cancers develop, which has led to breakthroughs in prevention, screening and diagnostic tools, and treatment. Although cancer research priorities often vary by the type of cancer being studied, there are some key things that are consistent across different types of cancer research. Here are 5 things to know about cancer research:

1. There are 3 major types of cancer research.

While many of us are most familiar with clinical research, cancer research is typically divided between three major research types: basic, translational, and clinical. Basic research is the study of cells, molecules, and genes, which is conducted in a lab. As its name implies, translational research looks to translate basic research findings into clinically useful interventions. This is often referred to as “bench to bedside.” Clinical research evaluates the impact of novel treatments and procedures in patients, as well as evaluating tissues and other samples from groups of patients.1

Additionally, population-based cancer research analyzes the causes, patterns, and trends in cancer risk and occurrence in different populations. This type of research is usually conducted by scientists who are trained in epidemiology.1

2. Funding for cancer research comes from multiple sources.

Cancer research studies can be funded by multiple different sources. These sources include federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, pharmaceutical companies, academic medical centers, and non-profit organizations. The National Cancer Institue, which is part of the National Institutes of Health, is the largest funder of cancer research in the world.2

3. Institutional review boards protect the rights and wellbeing of human participants.

All biomedical research studies involving human subjects are required to be reviewed, approved, and periodically monitored by an institutional review board (IRB). The IRB typically includes physicians, researchers, and community members, including patient advocates.3

Key tasks of the IRB involve reviewing study protocols and study documents to ensure equitable selection and participation of research participants, evaluate consent documents to make sure participants are made aware of possible risks and benefits, and make certain that the privacy and confidentiality of participants and their data is maintained. Most importantly, the IRB is responsible for ensuring that studies are conducted in an ethical manner and that the rights, safety, and best interest of the participants are protected.3

4. Cancer research is ushering in a new generation of targeted therapies and immunotherapies.

Targeted therapies are cancer treatments that stop or slow the spread of cancer by interfering with specific areas of cancer cells that are involved in the cell’s growth and spread. Cancer research seeks to identify the most appropriate cellular targets for different types of cancer. Chemotherapy acts on rapidly dividing cancerous and non-cancerous cells, whereas targeted therapies specifically target cancer cells.4

Immunotherapy is a type of treatment that attempts to boost the body’s own immune system to fight cancer cells. Research has helped to further our understanding of the interaction between cancer and the body’s immune system and has led to the development of approved immunotherapies for certain kinds of cancers.5 Many other targeted therapies and immunotherapies are currently being developed and studied through clinical trials.

5. Patient advocates have an instrumental role in furthering cancer research.

Individuals with cancer and their loved ones are involved in cancer research on multiple levels. Patient advocates lobby Congress to increase cancer research funding and participate in fundraising efforts for research-funding non-profit organizations. Advocates also serve on IRBs and patient panels and advisory boards, helping to share the patient perspective and priorities with cancer researchers.6

Have you participated in cancer research? Share your experience with the community!

  1. What Is Cancer Research? American Association for Cancer Research. Available at https://www.aacrfoundation.org/Pages/what-is-cancer-research.aspx. Accessed 3/20/19.
  2. NCI's Role in Cancer Research. National Cancer Institute. Available at https://www.cancer.gov/research/nci-role. Accessed 3/20/19.
  3. Chapter 2 - Purpose of the Human Research Protection Office and Institutional Review Board. University of Pittsburgh Human Research Protection Office (HRPO). Available at https://www.irb.pitt.edu/content/chapter-2-purpose-human-research-protection-office-and-institutional-review-board. Accessed 03/25/19.
  4. Targeted Cancer Therapies. National Cancer Institute. Available at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/targeted-therapies/targeted-therapies-fact-sheet#q7. Accessed 3/15/19.
  5. Immunotherapy. National Cancer Institute. Available athttps://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/immunotherapy. Accessed 3/25/19.
  6. How Patient Advocates Help Cancer Research: An Expert Q&A. Cancer.net. Available at https://www.cancer.net/research-and-advocacy/introduction-cancer-research/how-patient-advocates-help-cancer-research-expert-qa. Accessed 3/25/19.

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