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Brussels, 27 March 2009

Fight against cancer: contribution of EU-funded research

This week-end (28 – 29 March) the European Commission participates in the event "Relais pour la Vie", organised by the Luxembourgish Foundation against Cancer, in Luxembourg. "Relais pour la vie" is a race that aims to show solidarity with those affected by cancer and also to inform about the disease. Last year, 313 teams participated.

This background note gives some more information about the European Union's commitment to cancer research.

Cancer remains one of the major public health issues and challenges in Europe. Major efforts and investments in cancer research over the last decades have resulted in a decrease in the age-standardised mortality rate for cancer, in particular thanks to better prevention, earlier diagnosis and more effective treatments. In the foreseeable future, cancer will remain a formidable social and economic challenge worldwide, and further investments are therefore required to combat this disease and limit its devastating consequences.

What is the situation in the Seventh Framework Programme for Research (FP7) as regards Cancer research?

Health is one of the priority areas of the Commission's funding programme for research. In the first two calls of FP7 around €265 million have already been devoted to cancer research, supporting 65 projects and over 700 research groups. Approximately 33% of the budget was spent on large projects addressing complex issues which require the combination of resources and capacities, while helping to better integrate and structure the cancer research community in Europe. Two thirds of the budget was spent on small-and medium-sized research projects, and on complementary networking activities and support actions.

In the Sixth Framework Programme (2002-2006) the "Combating Cancer" initiative within the ‘Life Sciences, Genomics and Biotechnology for Health’ thematic priority, resulted in the allocation of approximately € 480 million to 108 transnational cancer research projects all over Europe.

Why does the European research encourage an all-encompassing effort?

The environment – in its broadest definition – is implicated in more than 80% of cancers in western populations. Up to 40% of cancers might be preventable altogether, whilst better ways of screening, earlier diagnosis, appropriate treatments and follow-up measures might have the potential of curing another 30% of cancers. In addition, palliative care can improve the quality of life significantly for those patients for whom the manifold treatment options have been exhausted. However, achieving these medical promises will require a deeper understanding of the biology and molecular mechanisms of cancer.

All these issues are covered during FP7 and FP6 and the scientific community's positive response, involving leading academic teams, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as well as larger industrial partners, has made it possible to establish a substantial portfolio of multidisciplinary projects in these areas.

Does EU-funded research work on the causes and mechanisms of cancer?

The past years have witnessed a dramatic progress in understanding the transformation of a normal cell into a cancer cell. Yet, our knowledge is still far from complete and much remains to be discovered. The EU is committed to research on the causes and mechanisms underlying cancer, covering a wide range of topics, from the molecular causes of cancer to its development and progression, through to molecular mechanisms relevant to preclinical drug discovery. FP7 and FP6 supported research projects that focused on cancer aetiology, cancer biology, development and progression, and on molecular mechanisms relevant to pre-clinical discovery. They supported research on:

  • the elucidation of molecular mechanisms in cancer aetiology, investigating signal transduction pathways and cellular processes, infectious agents such as cancer-causing human viruses and bacteria, and carrying out genomic screenings for the identification of unknown cancer genes.
  • molecular pathways and mechanisms controlling cancer development and progression: identifying genes involved in organ-specific metastasis, key regulatory molecules of tumour angiogenesis, the role of extra-cellular proteases in tumorigenesis, or isolating and characterising cancer stem cells.
  • unravelling molecular mechanisms to develop novel anti-cancer drugs, e.g. studying apoptotic signalling or targeting oxygen-sensing pathways.

Three examples:

  • TuMIC, a project that aims to understand how cancer stem cells behave in and contribute to metastasis, and how networks and pathways that are known to regulate metastasis affect their properties;
  • CANCERPATHWAYS that researches signalling pathways implicated in cancer using animal models;
  • APO-SYS that uses a systems biology approach to elucidate contribution of apoptotic process in cancer biology and AIDS.

Why is an early detection and diagnosis important?

The outcome of cancer critically depends on the stage at which the disease is detected, and on the diagnostic tools and information available to the clinician to decide on the most promising therapy for each patient.

The FP7 has already allocated over €70 millions to projects focusing on early detection and diagnosis, through research on cancer biomarkers and novel diagnostic tools, and on imaging devices and technologies.

The research project TELOMARKER focuses on identification and characterization of novel human telomere-related biomarkers that aid cancer management by improving patient diagnosis, treatment selection, and response monitoring.

The project BREAST CT focuses on dedicated x-ray computed tomography of the Female Breast.

What is EU research doing about cancer treatment and palliative care?

Since FP6 the EU research is focused explicitly on the development of improved patient-oriented strategies, as well as gaps in emerging areas, concentrating funds on drug discovery, clinical trials, and the development of therapeutic tools and technologies. Moreover treatment resistance, side effects of cancer therapy and palliative care are addressed.

NANOPHOTO is a project that focuses on improving the efficacy and selectivity of photodynamic therapy (PDT), ADAMANT works on improving antibody-based tumor targeting agents, and EPOC researches doxorubicin pharmacokinetics in children in order to provide guidelines for reducing toxicity of standard chemotherapy.

What is EU research doing regarding risk factors and cancer prevention?

In FP7 more than €27 millions are devoted to research focusing on risk-factors and prevention. Specific topics include genetic risk factors, environmental effects (such as air-pollution) and mobile phone use. The MOBI-KIDS project will assess potential carcinogenic effects of exposure to radiofrequency fields in childhood and adolescence, and ESCAPE will address impacts of long term exposure to air pollution on cancer incidence and mortality.

Understanding the role of nutritional, genetic, environmental and socio-economic factors involved in cancer aetiology, should allow developing approaches to predict the risk of certain cancers and to prevent their occurrence..

How can we better coordinate and integrate cancer research efforts in Europe?

The European cancer research field is characterized by its fragmentation and its diversity (multiplicity of support mechanisms, funding bodies, etc). Consequently, one of the EU's key policy objectives is to improve the coordination of cancer research activities throughout Europe, in line with the spirit of the European Research Area (ERA) project, which endeavours to bring together EU, national as well as regional research programs, activities and policies.

FP7 supports initiatives designed to help establish a strong, harmonized collaborative framework for cancer research in Europe. With a budget of approximately €5 million, 5 actions are launched in this spirit, i e seeking to identify the needs and potential benefits of a pan-European coordination of national cancer research activities.

For instance, EUROCOURSE will tackle fragmentation in the funding and usage of cancer registries in Europe, and the OPCARE9 ( and PRISMA ( actions will focus on integrating knowledge and practice of end-of-life care.

For more information:
General information on EU research:

General information on EU Health research in FP7:

Combating Cancer initiative in FP6:

All the project abstracts can be found on Cordis:

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