Covid, cancer and creativity

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the National Cancer Act, Richard Nixon’s attempt to immortalise himself as the President who beat cancer.

The plan was to copy the spirit of JFK’s ‘man on the moon’ vision and throw so many resources at the problem that, within five years, nobody in the USA would die from it any more.

Unfortunately, ‘beating cancer’ turned out to be a lot more complicated and nuanced than putting a man on the moon. Which is why, 50 years later, Nixon’s legacy is rather less glorious than he’d imagined and cancer is still the second biggest cause of death worldwide. 

That’s not to say things haven’t got better. Survival rates have improved significantly for every major type of cancer. 

Except one.

While overall cancer deaths have fallen, deaths from pancreatic cancer have actually risen. It’s now the second-biggest cause of all cancer mortality, killing half a million people worldwide every year, with a survival rate of just 5% in the UK (compared to 76% for breast cancer, or 53% for bowel cancer). 

How come? Why has this particular form of cancer resisted efforts to tame it?

There are a number of reasons. It’s hard to detect. It spreads more easily. It hasn’t had the profile of other cancers – and, therefore, not as much focus or research funding.

But the biggest problem, historically, has been not so much the scale of the resources available as the way they’ve been deployed.

All the big pharmaceutical companies have invested money and expertise in researching ways to treat pancreatic cancer. But most of that research hasn’t worked, which means they’ve hushed it up (‘don’t spook the shareholders’).

Which, in turn, means that, instead of pooling resources and learning from each other’s failures, they’ve wasted time and money duplicating them. 

In the meantime, 95% of people with pancreatic cancer are still dying from it – probably even more this year, since the lockdown has made it harder to detect the disease at an early stage.

And yet, oddly, the long term impact of the pandemic may actually be far more positive for cancer sufferers. Why? Because it’s changed the way people think.

Backed by massive government funding, pharmaceutical companies have combined with research institutes and health agencies to create not one, but five, viable vaccines to combat the covid-19 pandemic. 

Less than a year after the work started, the vaccine is already in the market and protecting people – one tenth of the time it would typically take. 

Working together on the covid vaccine has built relationships and trust between competing clinical bodies. More importantly, it’s built an instinct of collaboration, where people talk openly about research that didn’t work, because it helps everybody’s thinking move on faster.

The results are already seeping into cancer research, with a more collaborative approach yielding encouraging progress in treating pancreatic symptoms.

There are important lessons in this for any business.

The most important being that, if you really want people to be innovative, you have to create a culture where they’re not too scared to tell you something didn’t work.

Where they’re motivated to help each other, not keep things to themselves.

And where they can focus on the problem, without being distracted by money.