Cancer patients could end up waiting two years to benefit from new research discoveries, it has been warned.
The Institute of Cancer Research, London said tightened restrictions in response to new coronavirus variants have limited laboratory research time, and slowed the race to find new cancer treatments.
It said at the start of the latest lockdown that the number of researchers able to access labs had fallen by almost 30% on top of restrictions that already existed before Christmas.
Scientists estimated advances in research for cancer patients would be put back by an average of 17 months following the first lockdown, but the ICR now fears the delay could be as much as two years.
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The institute has called for extra financial support for cancer research organisations to prevent further delays.
Chief executive Professor Paul Workman said: “The coronavirus pandemic has posed the greatest threat to cancer research in generations.
“I now fear that when our researchers predicted in the autumn that advances for cancer patients could be delayed by nearly 18 months, it was an underestimate.
“Without extra funding to address the effects of the pandemic and plug holes in research budgets, cancer patients could end up waiting an extra two years to benefit from research discoveries.
“It’s great that science is now helping us get out of lockdown and begin to return to normal, but unfortunately cancer hasn’t been waiting for us – it remains as big a challenge as ever.
“We need as much support as possible to ensure that our research can make up lost ground in finding the new treatments that will make a difference for patients. Cancer won’t wait.”
The latest lockdown restrictions meant staff numbers were down by 28% in the second week of January, and still down by 15% in early February, according to the ICR.
It said 30% of lab shifts have started outside standard contracted hours – either at the weekend or between the hours of midnight and 8am, or 8pm to midnight.
Staff have spoken of “working through the night” to continue the organisation’s research.
Professor Jessica Downs, the ICR’s deputy head of cancer biology, said: “When we had to shut down our lab in the first lockdown, we thought the disruption would just be for a few weeks.
“If someone had told me then that, more than a year later, we’d still not be back to normal, I’d have been gutted.
“It has been essential to adapt our working patterns to ensure we could still be productive.
“Science has always been a bit of a 24/7 job sometimes involving coming in overnight or on a weekend, but this is now very much more the norm.
“The team has adapted terrifically, but we’re still probably losing about a day a week each.”
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