Cancer will claim close to 10,000 lives in Ireland this year, making it the country's second biggest killer after cardiovascular disease. A further 33,000 people will get the devastating news that they have been diagnosed with a form of cancer, with all the stress that this brings to them, their families and friends. The stark reality is that one in three people in Ireland will develop cancer during their lifetime.
On this, World Cancer Day, we must remember that in 2012, about 3.5 million people in Europe were diagnosed with cancer and 1.8 million died as a result of it. As our populations age, cancer is on track to become the main cause of death in many countries.
Breakthroughs in our understanding of the best ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer are beginning to pay some dividends, helping to save the lives of thousands of citizens. Put simply: while the number of cancer cases is rising, the number of deaths is rising more slowly. This reflects well on the systems of care and support that have been put in place over the years.
Since 2007, the European Union has invested over €1.4bn in cancer-related research. Together, about 3,000 scientists, clinicians and patient organisations from 65 countries across Europe and beyond have been involved in this research effort, including many Irish organisations. They are delivering better prevention strategies, insights into how cancer starts and progresses, early diagnosis, smarter treatments and ways to improve the quality of life for the growing number of cancer survivors.
For example, breast cancer is markedly increasing in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, affecting one in eight women during their lifetime. Fortunately, it is also a cancer where research is making a positive difference. An EU-funded project (RATHER) led by University College Dublin is delivering a proof-of-concept for novel therapeutic interventions, together with matched personalised diagnostic approaches for certain breast cancer patients for whom there are no targeted therapies available.
The project focuses on two difficult-to-treat breast cancer subtypes – 'triple negative' and 'invasive lobular' breast cancers – and has initiated a phase I/II clinical trial of a novel drug to treat them. Besides contributing key diagnostic know-how and technology, the involvement of industrial partners such as Oncomark Ltd in Dublin and Agendia NV in the Netherlands should help maximise commercial exploitation of the results and bring new treatments to the market.
Having received €2.2m in EU research funding since 2007, Oncomark is among Ireland's four most successful small and medium-sized enterprises in EU projects. Oncomark's research activities focus on disease indicators, in particular supporting oncology and drug development, to help oncologists make clinical decisions when developing effective anti-cancer drugs.
Unfortunately, cancer knows no boundaries when it comes to age. An EU-funded project, ASSET, is seeking to tackle some of the cancers that develop in early life. Co-ordinated by University College Dublin, it is seeking to develop new sets of drugs that will treat specific childhood cancers more effectively and with fewer side-effects.
Research to tackle cancer will continue to be funded under Horizon 2020, the EU's new seven-year framework programme for Research, Innovation and Science.
With a budget of nearly €80bn, Horizon 2020 brings together all EU research funding into a seamless programme.
Tackling chronic diseases is one of the key priorities under Horizon 2020. Developing personalised medicine represents one of the most promising avenues for the future of health research and care. But we need to invest both to harness research in the laboratory and to accelerate its conversion into clinical innovations that can help tackle diseases such as cancer.
Indeed, €549m has been allocated to support research into the whole area of personalised health and care as part of the first call for proposals under Horizon 2020, launched on December 11 last.
The public sector and private companies must work more closely together if we are going to develop more innovative cancer treatments into the future.
That is why the EU, together with the world's leading pharmaceutical companies, are cooperating in the Innovative Medicines Initiative, the world's largest public-private partnership in the pharmaceutical sector.
It is only by working together that we can tackle such an enormous challenge for society.
This is where EU funding can make a difference, bringing together the best brains in the world, and by helping public authorities to better co-ordinate data gathering and policy, and by promoting more extensive collaboration between companies, researchers, clinicians and academics alike.
MAIRE GEOGHEGAN-QUINN IS EUROPEAN COMMISSIONER FOR RESEARCH, INNOVATION AND SCIENCE