Cancer is responsible for nearly one in six deaths worldwide. To tackle this healthcare challenge, countries such as the US and China recognise that government initiatives must be coupled with private-sector innovation, with genomics firms such as BGI Group pioneering the development of stereo-seq technology to radically improve diagnosis and treatments.
The numbers are stark. Worldwide, cancer is the second biggest killer, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020, or 1 in 6 deaths globally. Its impact is felt most acutely in developed economies, with 2.7 million people diagnosed with cancer each year in Europe, and up to 40 per cent of Americans diagnosed with the disease during their lifetime.
Critically, its incidence looks certain to increase. Between 2005 and 2015, cancer diagnosis rose by a third, with new cases expected to increase by up to 70 per cent in the next 20 years.
As the leading, or second largest cause of mortality before the age of 70 in over half the world’s countries, scientists are under increasing pressure to beat the disease, with the past five years witnessing a string of breakthrough developments.
According to Dr Yingcheng Wu, we are now navigating a ‘golden era’ of cancer research, with concentrated efforts leading to advancements in stereo-seq technology (spatial enhanced resolution omics-sequencing technology), which is transforming our understanding of the cancer ecosystem at the systemic level.
BGI-Research, part of Shenzen-based BGI Group, has recently developed the world’s highest resolution spatial transcriptomic detection technology. Offering researchers a novel tool to explore spatial biology with unprecedented field-of-view and resolution, BGI Group’s stereo-seq technology provides vital insights into tumour development and tumour malignancy, while also helping researchers identify new therapeutic targets to enhance the effectiveness of cancer immunotherapy.
Before advancements in stereo-seq technology, scientists relied on bulk and single-cell RNA-sequencing approaches, which improved our ability to understand cell-cell interactions, yet required dissociation of the tissue of interest, resulting in a loss of spatial information. Tackling this issue head on, stereo-seq technology enables scientists to track a cell’s precise location and how it interacts with its neighbours with unparalleled resolution.
The technology has multiple purposes, but in the field of cancer research, it can be used to fundamentally improve our understanding of tumorigenesis and cancer microenvironment to drive up patient outcomes.
Other great strides in cancer research have been driven by pharmaceutical firms such as AstraZeneca, which recently developed a new medication to treat an aggressive form of breast cancer. The drug, called Enhertu, was found to halt disease progression in three-quarters of a total 500 patients involved in the trial, compared to a third treated with a different medicine.
Reflecting on the findings, AstraZeneca reported the results “shattered expectations” of the trial, raising hopes of a “cure” of the most common form of cancer.
The breakthroughs by BGI Group and AstraZeneca are just two of countless examples of private-sector innovation in this space, which seek to match ambitious plans launched by governments worldwide to identify novel approaches for cancer prevention and treatment.
Most recently, President Biden set the goal of reducing the death rate from cancer by at least 50 per cent over the next 25 years. This came as part of his plans to reignite the Moonshot programme, first initiated in 2016, to “end cancer as we know it.”
Similarly, across the pond, the UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid promised to wage a “national war on cancer”, with plans in place to boost the cancer workforce and increase research into technologies that help to detect the disease in its early stages.
Joining the global mission to tackle cancer, the European Commission also launched its “Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan” to tackle the entire disease pathway. Seeking to radically improve care for cancer patients and survivors, the plan focuses on investing in research and innovation to harness the power of new technologies.
It is clear there is strong appetite among international governments to tackle cancer. Yet to truly turn the tide against the disease, countries such as the US and China recognise that government initiatives cannot beat cancer alone, with private-sector innovation from the likes of BGI Group and AstraZeneca proving critical to the fight.
“It is essential all organisations, public or private, with a vested interest in conquering this devastating disease work together,” says Sanjeev Pandya, chief executive of Advanced Oncotherapy. “Victory in the war on cancer and the levelling of existing healthcare imbalances is possible, but not if governments continue to fight alone.”
While cancer remains the second biggest killer, it is clear we have come a long way in tackling the disease. To build on this progress, and shape the future of cancer treatment, we must use every tool in our arsenal, with success contingent on matching government initiatives with private-sector support.