Europe’s #cancer researchers: Rare bright spot for global collaboration

| March 13, 2017 | 0 Comments

machineIn both Europe and the United States, it seems as if the very idea of cross-border co-operation and international collective effort is under fire. In the United States, rhetoric and policy proposals that write off the United Nations, NATO, and the European project as obsolete or even as threats to American interests have gained widespread currency, writes James Drew.

Within Europe itself, parties and political leaders intent on dismantling the European Union are bearing down on fragile political establishments. This Wednesday (15 March) will offer just the first of many disaster scenarios for European integrationists, as the people of the Netherlands decide whether to cast their votes for Geert Wilders and back his outright rejection of not just Europe but the ideas of internationalism altogether.

If today’s political landscape seems frighteningly fractured, all indications are that it will continue to break down further. The Brexit vote in June and Trump’s ascent to the Presidency have destroyed what were safe assumptions about globalism and international collaborative efforts just nine months ago, with the dramatic shifts in the status quo sharpening the politicization of everything from immigration policy to environmental controls. In December 2015, the COP21 agreement in Paris marked the single most important international commitment to climate action in human history. Just fifteen months later, the global community finds itself asking whether that milestone can even survive the new political landscape in Washington.

While interest groups on both sides of the Atlantic take advantage of the chaotic landscape to push their own agendas, crucial public sector initiatives on issues that cross borders have been forgotten. One major issue: the integrity of scientific work on cancer, a global scourge far too devastating to let efforts be siloed into an array of uncoordinated, redundant research on account of political headwinds.

As killers go, cancer is one of the most relentless. It is estimated that 39.6% of people will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lives – each of those individuals with family and friends who will also feel the effects of the diagnoses. No one body, not even the European Union or the United States, has the wherewithal to pursue treatments and potential cures on its own. In America, former Vice President Biden’s ‘Cancer Moonshot’ was just the latest of an array of government pronouncements that have been repeatedly drowned out by the white noise of politics (although Biden’s clear commitment to pursuing the cause as a private citizen should come as welcome news).

While political tides change constantly, the global scientific community continues its work combatting cancer, doing its best to collaborate despite the barriers being thrown up along national borders and, as Biden pointed out in his recent SXSW keynote address, the technical challenges to collaboration that prevent researchers from sharing information effectively within and across borders. Many of the key nodes in the international cancer research movement are located in Europe, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in Lyon. A functionally independent agency of the World Health Organization, IARC has been conducting cancer research worldwide from its base in France for over five decades.

The core element in IARC’s portfolio of activities is it Monographs Program, which convenes Working Groups of expert scientists within their field to evaluate existing bodies of data on a substances carcinogenicity. Bereft of industry ties and functioning within an unbiased environment, IARC Working Groups produce monographs which go a long way towards tackling health issues that are international in scale and which would otherwise be plagued by a deluge of biased, industry-funded studies.

Nor is IARC the only European institution fighting the good fight – others, including the Ramazzini Institute (BRI) in Bologna, also help provide clear and useful carcinogen research to the public. The Ramazzini Institute has proven invaluable to the field of public health research, working together with partners like IARC on major research and litigation into global health risks such as asbestos. The Institute has contributed unbiased and independent research to American and European governments and various other international groups on a multitude of other potential carcinogens.

By working together, groups like IARC and Ramazzini have helped shed new light on some of the biggest issues in exposure and cancer risk research. Leading experts are able to come together to contribute to both RI and IARC efforts on issues such as the carcinogenic effects of artificial sweeteners, radio-wave radiation, polychlorinated biphenyls and the pesticide glyphosate.

Despite their apolitical character and safeguards against outside influence, heated public debate and criticism seems to follow even these organizations wherever they go. The debate over glyphosate has been particularly contentious, and IARC has been criticized for everything from the glyphosate studies it chose to evaluate carcinogenicity to its fundamental evaluation and classification system. Why all the outrage over the work of IARC, Ramazzini, and other similar institutions? Money and politics.

Given its independent nature, IARC does not shy away from evaluating substances that may be vitally important for industry actors. Despite its small size (IARC has approximately 300 staff), its monographs can have a tremendous footprint. Glyphosate, for example, is the primary ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide. IARC has also been met with fierce blowback over its findings on radio-wave radiation, the physical means by which our society communicates in the modern age in the guise of cell phones, radios and satellites. Given the stakes at hand, should we be surprised telecommunications companies would meticulously seek out the potential flaws in IARC’s methods?

The strength of industry attacks on independent research institutions should be an area of concern, especially now that many of the ascendant political forces in both Europe and America are prone to taking staunchly pro-business positions on everything from regulation to research. The irony is, of course, that IARC and Ramazinni represent one of the few areas where altruism is the true guiding factor for international collaboration. Cancer does not recognize partisan or ideological divides, and the fight against it shouldn’t either.

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Category: Cancer, EU, Frontpage, Health

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