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Queen’s researcher highlights pressing global cancer inequalities

Professor Mark Lawler from Queen’s University Belfast will present on the urgent need to address global cancer inequalities at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) in Chicago, the premier cancer conference in the world

Professor Mark Lawler, Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology, Queen's University Belfast

Professor Lawler from the Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology explains: “Cancer patients face huge discrepancies in terms of survival rates dependent on where they live. Every two minutes a woman dies from cervical cancer and 90% of these deaths occur in Low and Middle Income Countries (LMIC). In the US, there is a 2% mortality of cervical cancer compared to a 54.1% mortality for the same cancer in Asia. This discrepancy highlights the urgent need for cancer experts to come together to share learning and best practise so that together, we can bridge this gap.”

Professor Lawler explains: “Deficits in manpower and in training, a brain drain from Low and Middle Income Countries (LMICs) to High Income Countries (HICs) and the highly variable quality (or in some cases lack) of laboratory services in resource limited settings, is leading to significant challenges in achieving an accurate diagnosis of cancer.”

A lack of screening services in a number of LMICs can also be attributed to the high mortality rates. For example, in Romania cervical cancer mortality is 14.3% where limited screening services are available.

Professor Lawler suggests a potential solution to prevent the emerging crisis could be the employment of modern technologies. The use of point of care (POC) genomic testing can be done locally, eliminating the need for laboratory testing and enabling rapid results. POC tests can allow accurate detection of human papilloma virus, a known cause of cervical cancer.

Professor Lawler explains: “POC testing could reduce the mortality rates among cervical and other cancers, which is particularly useful for rural and underserved areas where laboratory testing simply isn’t available. A ‘screen and treat’ on the same day could be the answer to the unnecessary high levels of mortality for treatable cancers in LMICs. However, modern technology in isolation is not the solution. POC approaches must interlink seamlessly with health information systems, ensuring that the results are made available for clinicians to ensure an accurate diagnosis. Ensuring an accurate diagnosis can save hundreds of thousands of lives”

The other important issue is cost. Professor Richard Sullivan, Director of the Institute of Cancer Policy at King’s College London and a collaborator on the research said: “Patient’s need an accurate diagnosis, but it must be affordable. We need to be creative - what works in high income settings may not be appropriate for emerging economies – we need solution that will work, in the field and in rural communities. The ASCO conference is a unique opportunity to highlight this issue so we can work together to find solutions.”