Martin Memorial lecturer to share how COVID-19’s effects on cancer research, mortality rates will continue to reverberate into the future

Norman E. Sharpless, MD
Norman E. Sharpless, MD

Norman E. “Ned” Sharpless, MD, director, National Cancer Institute (NCI), will deliver the Martin Memorial Lecture: Assuring Progress in Cancer Research during Challenging Times at this year’s virtual Clinical Congress. His presentation will begin at 8:30 am CDT Monday, October 5, following the Opening Ceremony. Dr. Sharpless will address the NCI’s current fiscal situation, activities the NCI has taken in response to COVID-19, and how the current pandemic is affecting people with cancer.

The lecture will be available for on-demand viewing through the virtual Clinical Congress meeting platform through December 31.

In an editorial written by Dr. Sharpless in Science magazine in June, he suggests that COVID-19 is likely to negatively impact cancer mortality rates over the next decade. This negative effect is not only a matter of the increased risk for complications due to COVID-19 among patients with underlying conditions like cancer; it also includes long-term consequences of delayed diagnoses and suboptimal care for people with cancer during the pandemic.

The complex nature of cancer means the timing of diagnosis and intervention for patients greatly influences prognosis. Earlier treatment generally leads to better outcomes, Dr. Sharpless explained, but fewer people have been seeking screening, and in some cases treatment, for non-COVID diseases out of fear of coronavirus exposure in health care settings.

“There already has been a steep drop in cancer diagnoses in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic, but there is no reason to believe the actual incidence of cancer has dropped,” Dr. Sharpless wrote in the editorial. He continued by saying cancers being missed now would come to light eventually, at a later stage and with worse prognoses.

In addition to the ramifications to clinical care related to COVID-19, the cancer research community has seen lab closures, pauses to clinical trials, and shifts away from ongoing research to the effects of the coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, on cancer, he wrote. He added these words of caution: “The scientific community must ensure that this pause is only temporary, because trials are the only way to make progress in developing new therapies for cancer. Given the long timeline between basic cancer research and changes to cancer care, the effects of pausing research today may lead to slowdowns in cancer progress for many years to come.”

To address the challenges created by COVID-19, the NCI and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are working to increase flexibility and support for clinical trials, such as allowances for certain protocol deviations like accepting “remote” informed consent, Dr. Sharpless explained. New clinical trials and funding opportunities also have been announced to address the relationship between COVID-19 and cancer.

Another positive development noted by Dr. Sharpless since the first cases of COVID-19 were reported is the expanded use and acceptance of remote health care delivery.

“If there is a silver lining in this pandemic, it may be the rapid adoption of telehealth…this is both a boon for patients and an opportunity for health services researchers—and NCI is supporting a lot of work in this area,” he said.

Before being sworn in as the NCI’s 15th director in 2017, Dr. Sharpless served as the director of the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of North Carolina. In 2019, he served as the FDA’s acting commissioner for food and drugs for seven months before returning to the NCI.

Established in 1946 to honor American College of Surgeons founder Franklin H. Martin, MD, FACS, and his wife, Isabelle Hollister Martin, the Martin Memorial Lecture has been combined with the American Urological Association (AUA) Lecture, which was established in 1967, and has highlighted diverse topics in surgery. It is sponsored by the AUA and alternately nominated by the Advisory Council for Urology and the Board of Regents Honors Committee.