While a lot of lab-based research is currently on hold due to COVID-19, the Breast Cancer Now Generations Study continues. The study aims to understand why some women develop breast cancer and others don’t. We caught up with Dr Michael Jones, Senior Staff Scientist at The Institute of Cancer Research, London, working on the Generations Study, to hear more.

Dr Michael Jones

What is your research about?

The Generations Study is following more than 113,000 adult women of all ages from across the UK. We have sent them questionnaires to ask about their lifestyle and health, and asked them to donate a blood sample. By analysing all this information and knowing which women in the study developed breast cancer, we hope to better understand the causes of it. We would like to be able to give evidence and advice to policy makers and doctors, and to individual women and their children about their risk of breast cancer, and how they could lower it.

We send out follow-up questionnaires to the participants every three to four years, and each time over 95% of women complete them. It shows the support and dedication of the women in the study, without which the study would not be as successful as it is.

How has your research been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

The Generations Study hasn’t been affected as much by the current practical challenges as some laboratory-based research projects. We’re a bit slowed down, but we will be able to pick up everything that has been put on hold with no delay.

Not being able to go into the office has meant that we can’t send out paper questionnaires, open post and file questionnaires that we receive from the participants. The paper questionnaires coming in by post from participants are accumulating and will need to be processed later. So there will be a backlog, but nothing will be lost. We have also been using online questionnaires and the response to them is good.

What are you doing to make sure that the progress Generations Study is making isn’t lost?

We started putting plans in place before the lockdown was announced.

We have blood samples from over 100,000 study participants in a long-term storage. The freezers where the samples are stored need to be monitored, in case they develop a problem that could damage the samples. We’ve set up special agreements and a rota so team members could come in every few days and check the freezers are fine.

To stay in touch with everyone and their work, we keep interacting as a group via video-conferencing tools like Skype and Zoom. Part of the team, who can’t work from home due to the nature of their roles, are on furlough, but the rest of us are working.

Together with The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), we are also working to make sure that staff are safe and happy to return to the office in these unusual times.

How are you continuing your research from home?

In many respects the work I do is going on as normal. I continue to analyse the data gathered by the study. And I don’t miss the two-hour commute each way.

Currently, I’m analysing data form wristband activity trackers. Over 10,000 women have worn them for 8 days to continuously measure their physical activity 24 hours a day. We believe this approach is better and more reliable than questionnaires. I’m particularly interested in answering questions on how the amount of physical activity changes with age, who exercises more and who doesn’t, and what the main barriers are. I’m also trying to understand if physical activity levels differ in women with children or women with different weight.

The longer-term goal is to be able to give advice on what the right amount of exercise is to reduce the risk of breast cancer. And we want to understand what we can do to encourage women to increase their physical activity at the right time.

Why is it so important that breast cancer research continues?

Breast cancer will still be here after the COVID-19 pandemic. Our lives and lifestyles may have changed during the pandemic, so it will be important to continue collecting information about the causes of breast cancer, so we can one day help prevent it.

Do you have a message for Breast Cancer Now supporters?

I’d like to say one hundred thousand times thank you to the women participating in the Generations Study, it’s thanks to them we’re learning more about the causes of breast cancer. And also thank you to everyone supporting Breast Cancer Now, helping world-class research like this happen.

Our research hasn’t stopped. It may have been slowed down, but it’s continuing.

We need your support, now more than ever, so that our researchers can make up for lost time.

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