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Professor Steven Clifford, Director of Newcastle University Centre for Cancer, has given us an update on how research has still managed to continue during the COVID pandemic.

“As in all walks of life, the COVID pandemic has brought strange times and unexpected challenges for childhood cancer research at the Newcastle Centre for Cancer, threatening all of our important research programmes. However, the strength, creativity and resilience of our clinical and research teams are enabling us to chart a course through the crisis in the best way we can.

Back in March, our research facilities completely closed down and we saw a reorganisation of clinical care within the Great North Children’s Hospital and the secondment of our clinically-qualified researchers back to the hospital.  Our research teams moved to home-working, shifting to working on computational analysis of their datasets. This also created an opportunity to write up research papers and plan future funding applications, and a number of important findings have been accepted for publication in the time.

We’ve found new and effective ways of working together and as groups using videoconferencing, and with the wider community in virtual conferences and seminars, which have allowed us to keep working together as ‘normally’ as possible. I’m sure many of these new practices will persist into how we work post-COVID.

Inevitably though, some of our wholly lab-based team members have had to furlough with the labs closed.  In July, we started to gradually re-open our research facilities and return to working in the labs.  Most of our lab teams are now back at work in COVID-safe conditions or will return very shortly, and we hope that remaining working hour restrictions will be lifted very soon.

While it seems unlikely we’ll return to the ‘old normal’ way of working in the near future, we are confident that we have found a balance of home and lab-based working which will allows us to push our critical projects forward.

Most importantly, our clinical services have been maintained throughout the pandemic with minimal impact on our childhood cancer patients.

However, the impact on our research is far less certain, placing important discoveries and their translation into the clinic at risk.  In the short-term, there have been inevitable delays to our research projects, and we are working closely with our funders to mitigate these as much as possible.

The medium and long-term impact of the crisis is a much more significant concern, and more difficult to predict.  The crisis has impacted fundraising for many charities including NECCR, particularly through the cancellation of large-scale events such as the Children’s Cancer Run, which in normal years would raise hundreds of thousands of pounds which directly support our research.

The NECCR team are working very creatively to develop new alternative fundraising initiatives for this year.  Every single person that supports NECCR is critical to what they do and the research they support – they need your support now more than ever.

Steven C Clifford PhD

Director, Newcastle University Centre for Cancer & Professor of Molecular Paediatric Oncology

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