March 13, 2020

A silver lining for innovation in a world health crisis?

Michele Cleary speaking at The Mark Foundation Symposium on March 3, 2020 in New York City

First, all due respect to the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the leader of a non-profit organization that funds cancer research, I would never make light of a healthcare issue that results in serious illness and untimely death. And my heart goes out to those who have succumbed to this virus as well as the businesses, communities, families, and workers negatively impacted by efforts to contain it.

I acknowledge that it may be easier for someone like me, whose livelihood is not compromised by the current situation, to see any upsides. But I pose the question about a possible silver lining in reaction to sentiments I overheard expressed early this month, when our newcomer cancer research philanthropy hosted what may be one of the last cancer-focused conferences for the foreseeable future.

As we met to hear exciting progress reported by our grantees, their home institutions were cancelling travel across the board for staff or, at the very least, limiting attendance at or the hosting of large gatherings.

Flash forward 10 days and nearly all academic institutions have gotten on board with travel restrictions, gathering size limits, and shifts to online learning for their students. The cancer research community waited with bated breath for one of the most significant cancer event planners to make the inevitable decision to cancel. We’ve all now exhaled with the notice that AACR will postpone its annual meeting, and I’d imagine that, almost to a person, members of the cancer research community endorse this decision as the right one.

As we all try to make sense of this absurd new reality, a glimmer of optimism compels me to seek anything positive that might result. While our foundation’s symposium progressed and our attendees saw blocks of their calendars melt away throughout the day, I heard one very prominent researcher state “Well now I can get my papers written”. And the thought occurred to me that, much like a baby boom nine months after a citywide blackout, maybe this forced downtime would result in incredible productivity in the cancer research and other scientific communities as backlogged papers got written, patents got filed, and grants got submitted with the noise in the everyday life of scientist dampened down.

I also thought about my own schedule, which had gotten to a frenetic state traveling around the country and globe seeking out the white space in cancer research (i.e. looking for researchers with blue sky ideas with strong scientific rationale but the inability to get funded because they are too risky or lack reams of preliminary data). As I cancelled my own upcoming travels and our team shifted to teleworking, eliminating a mind-numbing commute, I am able to think more clearly about how we, a science-driven funding organization, could have maximal impact on the deadly disease we are trying to eradicate.

I hope and expect that the innovators and visionaries in cancer research will take advantage of unexpected free time to dream up solutions to overcome barriers that prevent all cancer patients from receiving optimal treatments. As they do so, The Mark Foundation will be dreaming up ways to help move those solutions forward as fast as possible. For the sake of world health, let’s hope this window of opportunity is extremely short, but enormously productive.

About The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research

The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research supports scientists answering challenging and complex questions in cancer research. Launched in 2017, The Mark Foundation pursues its mission by supporting a global portfolio of groundbreaking research carried out by individual investigators, multi-investigator teams, and inter-institutional collaborations. Since its launch, the Foundation has awarded over $90 million in grant funding to over 50 institutions in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe.

Recognizing the obstacles that can prevent scientific advances from improving patient outcomes, The Mark Foundation maintains a nimble, high-impact approach to funding research that encompasses grants for basic and translational cancer research, as well as venture philanthropy investment in companies that bridge the gap between the bench and the bedside. To learn more about the work of The Mark Foundation for Cancer Research, visit:

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