Any EU policy aimed at eradicating cancer must combine optimism, prudence and the realism of scientific evidence, the new boss of the EU research team on cancer, Walter Ricciardi, told EURACTIV in an interview.
Ricciardi was recently appointed as the new head of the Horizon Europe Mission Board for Cancer after former boss Harald zur Hausen, a Nobel laureate in medicine, resigned due to personal reasons.
The EU research and innovation missions take their cue from the Apollo 11 space mission, as they aim to also achieve something that everybody previously thought was impossible.
The five mission areas – cancer, climate change, healthy oceans, climate-neutral cities and healthy soil and food – were identified during the negotiations for the Horizon Europe programme as strategic to the future of EU citizens.
A professor of hygiene and public health at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Rome, Ricciardi said that all the experienced researchers sitting on the EU cancer mission board were impressed by the approach of the Commission and the European Parliament.
“These mission boards are more decision-shaker than decision-taker,” he said, adding that they will work to offer solutions that ensure competitiveness and well-being in the EU.
A plan for beating cancer is among the priorities of the new Commission and its president, Ursula von der Leyen, and Ricciardi said that the mission board feels the support of the new executive chief and her health Commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, as well as member states and European Parliament.
“But we must be extremely careful about this,” he warned, adding that “in our work, we will try to bring together the optimism that there must always be with prudence and realism of scientific evidence.”
“There are many reasons to be optimists on cancer, but at the same time, we have to be cautious too,” he said.
The 15 members of the board are among the most important authorities in the field of cancer treatment and were selected from hundreds of applicants. “And they are all extremely motivated,” Ricciardi added.
The high ambition will translate into strengthening scientific and welfare programmes, but also in dissemination and communication activities, with a focus on innovative tools for research on cancer.
For Ricciardi, what makes the mission board on cancer different compared to previous expert panels is the consultation stage with citizens and health actors, as the main intention is to systematically involve them in the work.
As the board cannot intervene directly in decision-making mechanisms, the 15 top researchers will also seek to find more active and persuasive mechanisms when it comes to implementing EU health suggestions at member state level.
Ricciardi mentioned the EU guidelines for optimal screening, which date back to 2003 and that some member states have not yet implemented 16 years later.
“These countries are stuck at before 2003 and they’re not carrying out screening according to the Commission’s lines,” he said.
Reducing both geographical and social inequalities in healthcare among EU member states is another topic that the mission boards are expected to address
“We must be aware that it is not an easy task and that it is mostly up to local decision-makers, who have to understand that this is an absolute priority,” he said, adding that, from a geographical point of view, the board is very representative.
Patients at the core
In order to increase understanding of the next challenges, the board is divided into four groups representing four large areas of research in cancer care. The research areas also include a deepening of prevention, improvement in the use of treatment therapies and the issue of survivorship.
“Thanks to scientists’ efforts, cancer is becoming an increasingly curable and chronic disease, posing the ‘problem’, if you can call it that, of thousands of people who survive the treatment,” Ricciardi said.
Patient empowerment is another important subject and two members of the board are patient representatives. “But we will have the opportunity to hear the voice of patients from member states also during the consultation stage,” he said.
A representative from the pharmaceutical industry research also sits on the board, showing for Ricciardi the need for a different public-private partnership with the industry as well as the willingness to change the current model that sees prohibitive costs for these therapies.
“It is true that science is making progress, but if science remains the privilege of a few or is not accessible to most is not compatible with the EU approach,” he said.
He added that no one wants to make the European welfare model fail, but rather to strengthen it, switching to a model where scientific innovation is made available as quickly as possible and accessible to patients.
Areas of research
Asked about the current trend in cancer research, Ricciardi cited three crucial areas of investigation.
The first one is essential research looking at a better understanding of the causes that determine the disease.
In the first meeting of the board, the resigning president gave some insights on a growing infectious aetiology of cancer motivated by microorganisms, Ricciardi revealed.
“It is clear that if we understand that part of these cancers is due to infectious centre, the activation of vaccines as in the case of HPV and HIV can be important solutions,” he said.
The second research area is transnational clinical research to ensure that the results of basic research can be transferred to the patient as quickly as possible. “This is particularly challenging and costly,” said Ricciardi.
The third is related to public health research and particularly on risk-factors, as four out ten forms of cancer are preventable through behavioural changes.
[Edited by Sam Morgan]