Inaugural international PACRI meeting to forge collaborations in the fight against cancer

Posted on March 13, 2023

The Pan African Cancer Research Institute (PACRI) hosted its inaugural international meeting at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa institute campus from 26 February to 1 March. Under the theme ‘Exploiting Global Networks for the Fight Against Cancer in Africa: Advancing Prevention and Transforming Care’, the meeting brought together cancer researchers from across the world, with 22 international speakers sharing the stage with local scientists and clinicians.

Director and Executive Head of PACRI Professor Zodwa Dlamini opened the conference by thanking delegates for their attendance, giving special acknowledgement to international collaborators and partners and those from other regions in Africa. “In Africa and South Africa we are very genetically diverse, so it is critical for us to be involved in cancer research and to be able to come up with African solutions, together with world-renowned scientists,” said Prof Dlamini, who is also the DSI/NRF SARChI Chair in Precision Oncology and Cancer Prevention (POCP) and Director of the SAMRC Precision Oncology Research Unit (PORU). “Make this an opportunity for you to interact with the best, and collaborate more so that we can take this forward and really strengthen cancer research.”

Over the course of the three days, presentations were delivered by more than 40 speakers during sessions under the themes of diagnostics, precision health equity, precision and translational oncology, industry-academia collaboration, cancer clinical trials, cancer prevention and control in an LMIC (low and middle income countries) region, patient advocates and survivors, cancer care, computational biology, and novel therapies. From race vs ancestry in breast cancer disparities, and cannabidiol as a viable therapy to treat prostate cancer cells, through to harnessing big omics data to advance precision medicine and deciphering the roadmap of cancer neuroscience, the engagement became a collaboration focal point of the cancer research community, as the latest advances in cancer science and medicine were shared.

Professor David Bates, Director: Centre for Cancer Sciences at the University of Nottingham, UK, who forms part of the PACRI International Scientific Advisory Committee (PISAC), spoke on moving science from the university to industry, showing examples of how partnering with business can give universities access to more resources to fund their research, particularly with regard to technological innovations and advancements. Professor Andreas Kauffman from Charité – Universitatsmedizin Berlin, agreed wholeheartedly, saying: “The real benefit of spin-off companies is that they bring the product to the patient, otherwise it remains in a vacuum of the ivory tower.”

A key emphasis of the meeting was highlighting the science of cancer health disparities and how diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts can change the cancer narrative. This is in line with PACRI’s vision to push the boundaries of precision oncology and cancer prevention, and bring new approaches for early diagnosis and novel therapeutic agents to improve health outcomes, reduce health inequalities, and strengthen health systems in underserved and socio-economically disadvantaged communities.

'Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration'

Dr Thulo Molefi of the Department of Medical Oncology, Faculty of Health Sciences, Steve Biko Academic Hospital, University of Pretoria, delivered a presentation titled ‘Africa’s cancer screening: Incidence paradox’. Dr Molefi, who is also the Head of PACRI’s Cancer Control and Prevention, spoke to the explosive rise in cancer burden and mortality which the African continent is experiencing, which is in stark contrast to its lack of organised and coordinated screening programmes. “Prevention is a relatively inexpensive tool and holds better prospects of cure than the current reactive response we have to malignancies,” he said. “Regular and widely publicised awareness campaigns are urgently needed; while we may have policy in place, things are not really changing on the ground. Above all else, we need implementation, through African-led innovation, multi-disciplinary collaboration, and with defined targets towards the things we want to achieve.”

Special speaker Lwazi Mathivha spoke about her experience as a cancer survivor in South Africa’s public health system. “My major dissatisfaction with the system relates to the long waiting periods and delays that I had to endure. I had my first consultation in October 2021, went for a sonar and mammogram on 31 March 2022, and was eventually diagnosed on 22 June 2022, after many months of repeated tests (including the invasive biopsy, where I was told the original specimens collected were insufficient), bureaucracy and confusing information,” she said.

“I am fortunate enough to be educated and have access to a laptop, so I made contact with the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA), which changed things significantly and I was able to access the treatment I need. I am extremely grateful to all the healthcare professionals who have helped me on my journey, but what about those people sitting in the villages of my home province in the Eastern Cape, where even basic healthcare services are inaccessible? Dealing with a cancer diagnosis is hard enough, but please let us try and do whatever we can to improve the cancer patient process, which, in the face of current system challenges, is overwhelming.”

At the gala and awards dinner which took place on the second evening of the conference, prizes for the best talks were awarded to Dr Kgomotso Poopedi (University of Limpopo), Dr Thulo Molefi (Steve Biko Academic Hospital), Dr Langanani Mbodi (Wits University) and Dr Shakeel Kader (University of KwaZulu-Natal), together with poster prizes for other attendants. A partnership signing ceremony between PACRI and HDT Bio (USA) took place, with Professor Steven Reed explaining HDT Bio’s passion for developing innovative immunotherapies through international business collaboration. “We want to share technologies with PACRI, as well as introduce our collaborators, such as the National Cancer Institute (NCI), who are very passionate about global health as well. Once clinical capacity is in place here, there will be a lot of opportunities,” he said.

Mario Rongo of Mediplan Architects and Health Planners also introduced the new PACRI building, with its 130m² laboratory, freezer room and more specialised laboratories as just some of the key features of this impressive new space situated on Prinshof Campus at the University of Pretoria.

Dr Richard Khanyile, Head of Department at the Department of Medical Oncology, Steve Biko Academic Hospital, spoke towards the end of the evening, saying that his role was to summarise everything that had been said, which he did in one word: “Collaboration. If this meeting has taught me anything, it is that the times of being in silos and producing small data is gone – it is all about collaboration, collaboration, collaboration.”

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