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A New Journey for Cancer Control: Conclusions of the IAEA Scientific Forum


Over 300 policymakers and experts participated in the two-day Scientific Forum during the IAEA's 63rd General Conference. (Photo: O. Yusuf/IAEA)

Leading experts and dignitaries came together this week to review the IAEA’s assistance to countries in the fight against cancer in the last decade and to consider how this can be strengthened in the coming years. As the incidence of the disease grows in all corners of the world, there is increasing demand for support from countries to improve their health services. Innovative means, such as forward-looking tools to train physicians and targeted partnerships to increase resources, will become increasingly important in this effort.

In two days, over 300 participants comprising representatives from Member States, leading scientists from around the world and IAEA experts reviewed past successes and challenges related to setting up and delivering nuclear and radiation medicine to fight a growing cancer burden. .

This article summarizes the takeaways from the four thematic sessions. Highlights from the opening session can be found here, and individual presentations here.

During the first session representatives of IAEA Member States shared their experience in strengthening and establishing nuclear and radiation medicine services, highlighting the assistance received from the IAEA. Discussions included topics such as the development of nuclear and radiation safety legislation, radioactive source security and challenges related to the acquisition of equipment and in maintaining a pool of qualified radiation oncologist and technicians, among others. Throughout the session, the vital role of national government commitment to cancer control was highlighted, along with the need for increased support to low- and middle-income countries. With Africa’s largest population, Nigeria would need 180 radiotherapy centres to be in line with World Health Organization (WHO) standards but currently has fewer than ten, said Abukabar Mohammed Bello, Clinical and Radiation Oncologist at the National Hospital in the capital, Abuja.

The session also introduced the ‘Roadmap towards a National Cancer Control Programme’ jointly developed by the IAEA and WHO:. Th Roadmap should help countries better plan nuclear medicine and radiotherapy services, taking into account the national capacity, the cancer epidemiological landscape in the country and setting out outcomes that can be measured and evaluated throughout.

The IAEA response to the evolving needs of Member States was the focus of session two. Keeping pace with changing technology in the medical field requires a flexible approach to ensure continuous learning in the profession: “quality education will lead to quality healthcare,” said Elba Etchebehere of the University of Campinas in Brazil. She emphasized the importance of online platforms such as the IAEA Human Health Campus, which provides free learning opportunities to professionals through e-learning modules and webinars. Additionally, the potential of tools such as phone apps to increase access to knowledge and improve clinical decisions was highlighted. Making such tools more widely available, for example in different languages, would help narrow the education and qualification divide between developed and developing countries, speakers said.

The third session provided an overview of latest advances in imaging technology, radiotherapy and radiopharmaceuticals. The audience heard how artificial intelligence, for example, will play a bigger role in the future in diagnostic techniques, improving the productivity of radiologists and increasing image confidence. Combined technologies will also help in providing safe and targeted treatment: “We can now deliver radiotherapy with unprecedented precision,” said Mary Gospodarowicz of the Princess Margaret Centre in Canada. New linac radiotherapy machines with inbuilt MRIs, for example, that can assess a tumour’s metabolic activity as it is treated, would make dose calculations even more precise in the future, she added.

Supporting cancer control programmes through partnerships was the focus of session four. Kennedy Lishimpi of the Cancer Diseases Hospital in Zambia described his country’s experience in cancer care financing from start to finish, highlighting how the IAEA played a key role in helping the country secure resources to establish its first radiation medicine centre. During the session, several Member States and private companies announced support towards the newly launched IAEA and Islamic Development Bank Partnership Initiative on Women’s Cancers.

During the closing session, Deputy Directors General, Najat Mokhtar, Head of the Department of Nuclear Sciences and Applications, Juan Carlos Lentijo, Head of the Department of Nuclear Safety and Security, and Dazhu Yang Head of the Department of Technical Cooperation outlined the preparedness of the IAEA in collaboration with partners to respond to the evolving needs of Member States in the field of cancer care and answered questions from the audience. Joining them, Acting Director General, Cornel Feruta, took stock of the discussions of the two-day Forum highlighting the long way the Agency and its Member States have come together in 10 years, in the effort to provide access to quality cancer care, reminding the audience how this is not the end of the journey but only the beginning.

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