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Nuclear Technology in the Fight against Cancer: Scientific Forum Opens

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(Video: K. Laffan, M. Klingenboeck/IAEA)

Nuclear technology plays a significant role in the timely diagnosis and effective treatment of cancer, and helping countries to tackle the cancer burden remains one of the top priorities for the IAEA, highlighted IAEA Acting Director General Cornel Feruta at the opening of the 2019 Scientific Forum today.

For the past decades the Agency has been closely collaborating with health authorities and health care providers worldwide, delivering training to medical professionals, assisting countries in acquiring necessary equipment and helping them establish effective national cancer control systems.

“Cancer killed nearly 10 million people last year. That is a shocking figure,” said IAEA Acting Director General Cornel Feruta. “This number is expected to continue to rise. Cancer is no longer a disease of prosperous countries, as it was often perceived to be in the past.”

Helping countries tackle health care issues using nuclear techniques accounts for around a quarter of the IAEA’s technical cooperation programme, and helping low- and middle-income countries to improve access to radiotherapy and nuclear medicine makes up a lions’ share of that, Mr Feruta said.

Recounting the various ways in which the IAEA supports countries in battling cancer, Mr Feruta spoke of the challenges that remain. “Dozens of countries do not have a single radiotherapy machine and there are nearly 60 countries where less than a quarter of patients have access to radiotherapy.”

Mr Feruta announced the launch of a new partnership initiative with the Islamic Development Bank to fund IAEA projects in tackling women’s cancers in countries that are members of both organizations. Read more about this new initiative here. Read the Acting Director General’s full statement here.

Opening session

Over the last ten years, the Government of Thailand has focused on increasing access to cancer care, by opening ten specialized state-run radiotherapy centres in remote provinces, said Princess Chulabhorn, President of the Chulabhorn Research Institute, which houses Thailand’s first comprehensive cancer control centre.

“Our goal is to provide cancer care to all Thai people regardless of their social and economic background,” she said.

She highlighted the support from the IAEA in this endeavour, and spoke of a technical cooperation project, which ended recently, and which has enabled Thai scientists to produce new types of radiopharmaceuticals for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and other diseases.

“My vision is to educate and produce medical personnel that are highly needed in Thailand to treat cancer - medical doctors, radiological technologists and medical physicists,” she said. The first graduating class of a royal academy, established in 2016, will enter the workforce in 2021, she added. “We will continue to improve the life of cancer patients with highly skilled personnel and improved treatment techniques.”

In Burkina Faso, 25 people die of cancer every day, “a sad and shocking figure,” said First Lady Sika Kabore, adding that cancers affecting women are the most common. 

“Since 2016, we have launched a decisive strike to combat cancer,” she said. “Burkina Faso is steadfastly committed to tackle cancer care.”

With the help of international partners and donors, the government is working on increasing access to care and on a programme of early diagnosis. Last April, construction of a radiotherapy centre began, with the support of the IAEA, which helps build institutional capacity, including through the training of staff in diagnosis, treatment, radiation protection and quality control of equipment.

Increasing access to treatment is a key goal of the Government of Niger as well, said Lalla Malika Mahamadou, Niger's First Lady. A new strategic plan to create diagnostic units in all provinces of the country is under development. “Early diagnosis is key to success,” she said.

Thanks to support from the IAEA, Niger today has a general nuclear law, which is necessary for the safe and secure use of radiation technology, she said. Furthermore, the IAEA has supported the country through the donation of equipment, human resource development and advice in setting up radiation bunkers.  

In Peru, government-funded treatment is available to all cancer patients, said Minister of Health Elizabeth Zulema Tomas Gonzales. More than 60% of the country’s over 70,000 cancer patients require radiation, and thanks to the support of the IAEA and other partners, they have access to care using the latest technology. “We must offer health services that are high quality, safe and have a human face.”

The government is putting emphasis on prevention as well.

“We have created cancer registries and are running information and awareness raising campaigns to reduce lifestyle risk factors and promote healthy living,” she said.

Combatting oncological diseases is one of the health care priorities of Russia's government, said Deputy Health Minister Sergey Kraevoy. “We are working on outfitting clinics with state of the art medical equipment and on broadening public access to high-level cancer therapy.”

Russia supports other countries in increasing the quality of their cancer services by hosting IAEA-organized training courses to cancer experts. “We cooperate with the Agency very closely,” he said.

Cervical cancer is taking too many lives, particularly in developing countries, said Douglas Lowy, Acting Director General of the National Cancer Institute in the United States. “There is a potential for controlling it and eventually eliminating it, not only in high income countries but also in low income countries,” he said. “High income countries have the resources to take advantage of new technologies, and the IAEA can play a major role in helping developing countries access the same technology and overcoming discrepancy in treatment.”

Cervical cancer is curable, if diagnosed early, he underlined. Of the over 300,000 women who succumb to the disease every year, 90% are in developing countries, where in most cases there is no screening or comprehensive vaccination against the HPV virus, which is responsible for cervical cancer. Ongoing research into the development of a new kind of vaccine, which would require only a single vaccination, decreasing costs and simplifying logistics, is key to tacking the problem in developing countries, he said. “This could be transformative to the rollout of large scale vaccination in developing countries.”

Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director General of  the World Health Organization (WHO), spoke about the “long and successful collaboration between WHO and IAEA on cancer.” In a video message to the Forum, he highlighted two joint global initiatives by the WHO, the IAEA and other partners: to eliminate cervical cancer and childhood cancer. “For both cervical cancer and childhood cancer, survival in high income countries is 70%, while in Africa it is less than 30%,” he said. “We have no excuse if we do not act.”

Serving women’s lives from cancer is an important endeavour, said Bandar M. H. Hajjar, President of the Islamic Development Bank (IsDB). “More than 8.6 million women suffer from largely treatable cancers. This is a priority for IsDB.”

The Bank is ready to consider providing grants to 17 low and middle income countries that are members of both organizations for IAEA projects to diagnose and treat women cancers. “We want to contribute to the global effort to save millions of women's lives,” he said, announcing a plan to mobilize an initial US $10 million in grant funding for which a Memorandum of Understanding was signed shortly after the Forum’s opening session.

Scientific Forum Programme

The Scientific Forum: A Decade of Action on Cancer Control and the Way Forward is taking place on the margins of the IAEA’s 63rd General Conference. In four sessions over two days, participants and IAEA experts will review successes and challenges from the past years in the field of nuclear medicine and cancer control, and outline the action plan for the countries and the IAEA to maximise the capacities to fight against the growing cancer burden.

The live streaming of the Scientific Forum is available via this link. A recording of the opening session is available on Facebook. See our series of Impact Stories on how the IAEA contributes to advancement of cancer management around the world, and read our latest edition of the IAEA Bulletin on Cancer control. Follow the #IAEAGC on social media to get updates on the General Conference and the discussion on the Scientific Forum.

Overview of sessions

Session 1: Ten years of cancer control — the experience of Member States

The first session will focus on speakers from Member States sharing their experience and best practices in setting-up the infrastructure for cancer control systems and introducing relevant regulation and legislation. The discussion will also focus on the role of the IAEA in providing expert support and assistance to the Member states in rolling-out these projects.

Session 2: The IAEA response to the evolving needs of Member States

The second session will focus on the growing capacities, and therefore the growing needs of the Member States in cancer control. The participants will discuss the ways to maximize the impact and keeping up-to-date with evolving technologies through education and training.

Session 3: Overview of technology advances in nuclear and radiation medicine

The third session will explore how contemporary imaging techniques improve precise cancer diagnosis and treatment. The session will also provide an overview of the medical application of ionizing radiation like radiotherapy, radiopharmaceuticals and theranostics.

Session 4: Supporting cancer control programmes through partnerships

The penultimate session of the Scientific Forum will focus on Member States’ experiences in cancer care financing. The participants will explore the ways to assist Member States in setting up their cancer control efforts and forming strategic partnerships.

Closing session

The final session of the Forum will draw together main conclusions of the discussions and give pointers to future actions for Member States and the IAEA. Acting Director General Feruta will deliver the concluding remarks to the Forum’s participants.

Last update: 24 Sep 2019

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