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Minister Manuel Heitor, Minister Adalberto Campos, Alexandre Quintanilha - Member of the Portuguese Parliament, President Mário Barbosa,
Ladies and gentlemen,
I'm very happy to be here today. Honouring the memory of my good friend Mariano Gago with you all is a privilege.
A few years ago the National Institutes of Health in the United States had a challenge. They wanted to increase the speed and accuracy of the human white blood cell genome. It was an incredibly important test. But it was a complicated one. At the time, the algorithm they used could do it in four hours. And it would be about 70% accurate. It needed to be better. The institutes invited specialists to try and improve it. But the impact was never big enough. So they decided to try something new.
They made a landmark decision to open it up to the crowd. They made it a public challenge. So what was the result? Suddenly, ideas came flooding in from people all over the country. And the best solution reduced the test time to 10 seconds with 80% accuracy. From 4 hours to 10 seconds.
Afterwards, the NIH interviewed all of the entrees with the best ideas. And here is the most interesting point about the experiment: none of the top performers had a life sciences background. There was not a single biologist among them.
The NIH found their solution. And they did it by inviting in new ways of thinking.
By adopting a new approach, the results were unimaginable.
And that's exactly what we need to do for cancer research in Europe today.
In the 1970's Nixon declared the war on cancer. That was 46 years ago. Almost my entire lifetime. We all know that some very important breakthroughs have been made since then. We understand so much more about the disease. How to treat it. Cancer no longer means the same thing as it did back then. But it still remains. And it has a life-changing effect on all of us no matter how we look at it.
Now we are in a new age. We have new weapons. We have the tools to try and solve the problem with a new approach, just as the NIH did. That is what I believe should be the way forward for cancer research and innovation in Europe. And what I will talk about three of them today.
1. First, a focus on digitisation.
2. Second, interdisciplinarity.
3. And third, a mission-oriented approach.
First, let's talk about digitisation.
A digital revolution is coming in healthcare.
We are the first generation of truly digital natives. With the phones in our pockets we can buy, we can bank, we can build relationships. Why not use this new technology for our health? Now, I know a phone will never replace an MRI machine. But apps are being developed that have amazing potential. Apps that help early detection, create care plans, help us manage side-effects. Putting cancer treatment literally into the hands of patients empowers them.
Empowerment also comes from having access to your own medical data. This is a public sector innovation, one which could save lives. Studies show that patients with access to their own data understand their illnesses better. And have treatments that are more successful. There are few countries that have gone as far as Sweden. Its goal is to give all citizens electronic access to their medical records by 2020. And over a third of Swedes have already set up accounts.
Digital healthcare platforms allow us to reach new levels of impact. Rare diseases, including rare cancers, affect up to 36 million European citizens. But meaningful research on many rare diseases cannot begin. We can't help these people without a critical mass of patient data. And it is simply not possible on a member state level. Recently I heard about the Solve-RD project. It is a project funded by the European Commission. They have created a virtual network linking databases, patient registries and biobanks across this continent into one central resource. Any user can share and view research data on rare diseases at a scale that we haven't seen before. And for someone living with a rare cancer, it means that a patient's chance of diagnosis no longer depends on their geographical location. They can get access to the information they need through the power of open data.
None of this data is new. But getting access to it in this way is. Getting to this critical mass of information is only possible because of EU-level collaboration.
People ask me whether the solution to cancer should be a medical one, or one based on data. Why not both?
My second point is on interdisciplinarity.
We talk about the "cure for cancer". Nixon did it in the 70's. And it's largely been the same message until now.
How we see cancer has changed. It doesn't have to mean a death sentence today. Cancer can now be considered a chronic disease.
Dealing with cancer is about more than just a cure. It's about prevention, early detection, treating side-effects, and keeping patients active in our societies. This continuum has a knock-on effect for research and innovation. It means we need more of an emphasis on interdisciplinary research. Focusing on oncologists is no longer enough. We need oncologists, biologists, nutritionists, psychologists, physical therapists, sociologists.
New technologies also demand an interdisciplinary approach. In 2015 there was a study in the US by a company called Enlitic. It showed us that radiologists failed to detect 7% of cancers. But machines using a deep learning algorithm missed 0%. But in order to get there, radiology experts and computer scientists needed to come together and share their knowledge. And that intersection is where the most exciting innovations are going to happen.
That is something we are backing in the next research and innovation framework programme for Europe, FP9. In order to get the most impact from our innovations, to encourage this type of interdisciplinary approach, we are creating a European Innovation Council. With the EIC we are no longer creating calls. Instead, we are going to let the innovators tell us what to do. To come to us with their ideas in a bottom-up way. This is what we need to do if we are going to break down silos and bring together experts in all different areas for a single purpose.
This idea of purpose leads me to my third and final point: missions.
Cancer has been a priority in the European Union for thirty years. And it's going to stay that way. We have already spoken about missions today. I believe mission-oriented research is a new approach to solve an old problem. Why not follow in Nixon's footsteps almost half a century later?
A mission on cancer makes sense. Now more than ever. A mission should be responding to one of our greatest societal challenges. It should be interdisciplinary, demand EU-level scale and create a sense of purpose for European citizens.
Cancer responds to all of these criteria. By 2030 there will be over 22 million new cases of cancer a year, that's almost double the amount in 2012 according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). It is something that we cannot overcome in one discipline, or in one country. We need the scale and the critical mass at the EU level, to give it our best shot. And we need experts in multiple disciplines across Europe to come together so we have a fighting chance. Lastly, it is a disease that links all citizens. Each one of us here has been affected directly or indirectly by it.
Some people are sceptical. They think that if the mission fails, all of our efforts are wasted. I think that's short sighted. Nixon is often criticised for failing to find a cure for cancer. But the scientific discoveries that were made as a result of this mission led the way to breakthroughs in other fields. Such as treatments for HIV.
Thinking big leads us to great things. So why not a mission on cancer in FP9?
Ladies and gentlemen,
Cancer, unfortunately, has been a household word for so long. For many of us, Mariano Gago was not the first person we knew that was affected by this disease. No other illness in the world has been researched to the same extent. And still we haven't done enough.
So I am proposing a new way of working. Finding new solutions to an old problem. To explore and experiment and find new solutions with the most impact. Experimentation is at the very heart of science. So let's apply it to cancer.
We need your support to do this. And we need support across Europe to do this.
Gago always spoke about science in such a beautiful way. In 1997, he ended his opening speech at the first Science Viva Forum with such words. I want to echo them here today. He said:
Without thought, without a structured dialogue about why things are as they are, without controversy, without mystery, without true experimentation, there is neither science nor scientific education.