Global Engagement for Cancer Research: Breaking Barriers, Inspiring Generations and Saving Lives

Breast cancer has been recognized as a major global health problem. In 2010 the disease killed 68,000 women aged 15-49 years old in low-and middle-income countries, compared to 26,000 in developed countries; and mortality from this disease is increasing annually. With the aggressive manifestation of breast cancer among women in low-and middle-income countries, scientists around the world are facing the demands of developing international research programs to intensively study the disease biology and translate research findings to be of immediate assistance to suffering patients.
An ideal model of global engagement in cancer research is the Cancer Biology Research Laboratory (CBRL), Faculty of Science at Cairo University in Giza, Egypt. CBRL was established in 2007 when I got seed funding from Avon Foundation-USA and Cairo University-Egypt to setup the first breast cancer specific biology lab in Egypt. Today CBRL research is funded by several international organizations, including the Avon Foundation, Science and Technology Development Fund (Egypt), the National Institutes of Health’s Fogarty International Center (USA), USA-Egypt joint grants, and the European Commission (Horizon 2020). Funding organizations, motivated scientists, and ambitious early career scientists are a hub in achieving global research engagements by breaking barriers and working together to combat cancer.

CBRL’s main interest is to study the biology of metastatic breast cancer, with special focus on inflammatory breast cancer (IBC), which is the most aggressive form of breast cancer for unidentified reasons. IBC is a lethal phenotype of breast cancer targeting young women in North Africa. CBRL brings together a multi-disciplinary team of American, Canadian, German, French, and Egyptian health professionals, breast cancer biologists, surgeons, pathologist, epidemiologists, and early career scientists in a unique effort to identify novel pathways that may be associated with IBC metastasis and recurrence. CBRL conducted several studies with different universities in USA, Germany and France to understand the molecular, viral and immunological drivers of IBC. Research at CBRL is comparing the molecular and cellular properties of IBC versus non-IBC. As a result, we have published 27 papers in academic journals that have made significant contributions to understanding the basis for IBC in comparison to non-IBC and identifying novel therapeutically target pathways in IBC.
Basic, pre-clinical and clinical research at CBRL follows the international regulations of responsible sciences and research ethics. I work as a teacher and member of the interim executive committee to train faculty members and scientists from different countries of the Broader Middle East and North Africa region. My goal is to strengthen collaboration between scientists at the institutional, national, regional, and international levels. I actively participate in workshops and trainings on international engagement, responsible science, and research ethics, and I create opportunities for my students to do the same.  
More than 17 students learning basic and advanced laboratory techniques have received their MSc and PhD degrees. In addition, CBRL senior scientists have trained and mentored postgraduate students from countries all over the world. Besides CBRL’s research strategy to fight breast cancer, CBRL aims is to prepare junior scientists with a broad range of knowledge, attitudes, and interdisciplinary skills in breast cancer research. Junior scientists trained at CBRL are able to perform critical thinking, communicate effectively with their colleagues, and independently publish international peer review scientific articles as first and corresponding authors. Among the CBRL postgraduates, seven candidates received postdoctoral positions in Germany, UK, France and Canada to pursue their careers as independent junior scientists.

In less than 10 years, CBRL research discoveries have helped to advance the diagnosis and treatment of IBC. In addition, the lab’s capacity building strategy prepares junior scientists with technical skills and communication strategies—valuable skills for success in the field scientific research. Global mobilization of junior and senior scientists break barriers, build high quality research capacity, and develop novel therapeutic strategies to combat breast cancer disease.
Unfortunately, models for successful scientific collaboration between the MENA region and Western countries are limited. This may be due to the lack of “regulatory frameworks” to facilitate international collaborative agreements. Paradoxically, the approval process to conduct a funded international research project can be extremely complicated and lengthy. Oftentimes funding organizations and collaborative institutions in different countries lack standards and mechanisms for coordinating collaborative research projects while taking into account social, economic, political, and cultural differences between countries. This puts added stress on principal investigators to work on administrative issues such as reviewing and translating contract agreements. Many problems can arise because institutions are mostly restricted to follow criteria of their own countries; logically each country has its own regulations and legislations. I have seen funded grants between researchers in the MENA region and Western countries cancelled because of administrative bureaucracy. This forces some scientists to quit research.
There are many political, economic, and social challenges that restrict global engagement in cancer research. At the research level, we need to improve coordination and communication between universities and institutes among collaborative countries. We need to support scientists by letting them focus on research, instead of losing valuable time negotiating agreements and convincing their institutions, governments, and decision makers to approve funding. Potentially lifesaving science depends on it.