Science and policy: working together to prevent cancer

Kate Allen is Executive Director of Science and Public Affairs at World Cancer Research Fund. She explains how our science and policy work are intertwined, echoing the same evidence-based approach.

World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) is celebrating some important birthdays! In May our Dutch charity Wereld Kanker Onderzoek Fonds was 25 years old and next year WCRF UK celebrates its 30th anniversary. Old timer and original network member the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is now over 35 years old.

When we started out, the idea that what you eat and how active you are could affect your risk of cancer seemed outlandish. People just didn’t believe it. Over the past 35 years, our network of charities has built the evidence base in the area of diet, nutrition, physical activity and cancer. Today there is robust evidence that modifying these lifestyle factors can significantly influence cancer risk.

Two signature projects of WCRF – one established (the Continuous Update Project, CUP) and one new (CO-CREATE) – exemplify how we use evidence to achieve our vision to live in a world where no one develops a preventable cancer.

The CUP Transition Panel meeting in July 2019

Our CUP is carried out in partnership with scientists at Imperial College London, and collates and analyses all relevant data published around the world on how food, nutrition and physical activity affect risk of cancer. Last May, we launched a major new report from the CUP called Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: A Global Perspective. The centrepiece of this report was our ten updated cancer prevention recommendations. Our analysis for the report revealed that overweight and obesity is strongly linked to at least 12 different cancer types. Across the world there is an obesity epidemic driving increasing numbers of cancer cases. Many factors influence why people are overweight or obese and these are often outside people’s direct control.

Using evidence to create healthy environments

Evidence-based public policy has a critical role to play in helping to shape environments that enable people to make healthy choices. To that end, we are one of the partners involved in CO-CREATE, a ground breaking five year project funded by the European Commission Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

The aim of the project is to reduce childhood obesity by working with young people (aged 11 to 18) to ‘co-create’ evidence-based policies to promote healthier environments around physical activity. The idea is that young people, the future leaders of tomorrow, have a say about the issues that affect them – indeed an underpinning theme of CO-CREATE is ‘nothing about us, without us’.

Why is CO-CREATE so important? An overweight child has a good chance of becoming an overweight adult, putting them at increased risk not just of cancer but other diseases, like heart disease, lung disease and diabetes. So it’s vital to intervene early in tackling overweight and obesity to help children develop healthy behaviours around nutrition and physical activity.

A new physical activity policy framework

Photo: iStockphoto, James-Alexander

Our role in CO-CREATE is to develop a physical activity framework and policy database, building on and complementing our existing NOURISHING framework and policy database. Called MOVING, the new framework will enable policy makers to implement policies in their own countries to promote physical activity and reduce overweight and obesity. Watch this space for more news about its development and launch!

Into the future

We’ve come a very long way in the last 35 years in our understanding of how diet, nutrition and physical activity together influence cancer risk. But there is still so much more to know. The CUP itself is going through a period of change and growth to enable an even greater and more nuanced understanding of how what we eat and how active we are increases or decreases our risk of cancer. Over the next few years, CO-CREATE will continue to explore what really works policy wise in addressing overweight and obesity through physical activity. Together the two projects, both evidence-based, will contribute to future knowledge and help achieve a world where fewer people have to suffer this largely preventable disease.

Dr Kate Allen | 28 August 2019