The importance of early detection of cancer is hard to overstate in terms of patient impact – what’s more the science going on in the field is incredibly exciting. We catch up with Dr Alexis Webb and find out about the upcoming Early Detection of Cancer Conference, the importance of collaboration and why these are exciting times for the field…    

Given the importance of early detection – do you think it still struggles as a field with gaining a real footing in terms of infrastructure, funding and interest?

While it hasn’t always been in the limelight in the same way as other areas like immunotherapy, I think cancer early detection research has come into its own over the past several years.

We have seen greater emphasis on early detection in the broader cancer research community, like the recent publication of our ‘call to arms’ review in Science or through sessions at larger conferences like AACR. We’re seeing more funding of detection trials, like the NHS-GRAIL partnership in the UK and the soon-to-be launched pilot study of multi-cancer detection technologies by NCI in the US. We have also invested in our international Alliance for Cancer Early Detection, which is about to start its third year of collaborative infrastructure funding.

But of course, the Early Detection of Cancer Conference has been around since 2016 and we’ve really seen the interest grow in this time, starting from a small, invite-only meeting of experts to a dynamic meeting with hundreds of participants across fields and seniority levels.

Speaking of which… the upcoming Early Detection of Cancer Conference is part of our partnership with The Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health & Science University and The Canary Center at Stanford – why is collaboration, at all levels, so important for early detection research?

A single discipline isn’t going to solve the challenge of detecting cancers earlier. Collaboration is at the heart of what we’re trying to achieve.

The Early Detection of Cancer Conference is designed to be a continuous conversation between fields about how we are going to tackle the challenges – there are no separate sessions; everyone is in the same room over the three-day event. We have to understand many different perspectives and develop a shared language around cancer detection which includes everyone from cancer biologists to population scientists to engineers to patients and the public.

What research is really exciting you in the field of early detection at the moment?

I think the promise of multi-cancer early detection (MCED) tests is an alluring one. A single blood test that could find whether you have one of upwards of 20 different cancer types is becoming more of a reality than fiction in recent years. But more work obviously must be done to validate these tests, to show whether they are able to find the early-stage cancers and that the detection of these cancers by MCED tests actually leads to more lives being saved. One of the sessions of this year’s conference will be an expert panel on how we should evaluate these tests and I’m really excited for the discussion.

If you had to pick one problem in early detection research you could solve – what would that be?

Part of the challenge of detection is knowing where, or in this case, in whom, to look for cancers. Who is at most risk of developing cancers and how do we potentially monitor and intervene to ensure that for these people we detect cancers at the earliest, clinically meaningful point? How can we use big data, like your health records, environmental factors or family history, to determine individual and population-level risk of cancer? This is an exciting challenge to solve and hopefully would give people more control of their health before any problems arise.

It’s early days in terms of thinking about early detection as a field – can you tell us a little about how the Early Detection and Diagnosis Roadmap will help chart a successful course as it develops?

The roadmap, published in 2020 following extensive consultation with stakeholders across all sectors, lays out a vision for a future where finding early cancers is a routine clinical reality that increases overall cancer survival.

In it we present a series of actions to help us get there. These actions aren’t for any single organisation to take alone, but areas where we can work with each other to drive forward progress and change. This means that we need to consider the work of academics and clinicians, industry and regulators, charities and policy makers, and of course patients and the public in how we solve early detection.

Everyone has a role to play, and the Early Detection of Cancer Conference is a great opportunity for all of us to come together.

Dr Alexis Webb is Research Programme Manager for Early Detection & Prevention at Cancer Research UK

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