China is narrowing the U.S. lead in cancer research

The number of cancer cases is projected to nearly double over the next 20 years as the global population gets older.

Chinese researchers are publishing more than three times as many research papers on cancer topics than they were a decade ago, closing the gap with their U.S. counterparts.

China now has more than 17% of the global share of cancer research publications, up from around 5% in the mid-2000s, and now matches the output of the U.S. in 2005, according to a just-published report from science publisher Elsevier. 

China's advancement has been driven by a rise in R&D spend as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as well as "a shift from socialist economic planning to a more market driven system over the past decade," says the report, which is benchmarking the current state of worldwide cancer research as part of an intelligence-gathering effort for the White House 'Cancer Moonshot'.

The Moonshot—launched last year by Vice President Joe Biden last year in an attempt to reduce the deaths from the disease—is striving to make "a decade worth of advances in cancer prevention, diagnosis and treatment in five years." The number of cancer cases is projected to nearly double over the next 20 years as the global population gets older.

The data detailing emergence of China as a cancer research powerhouse comes against a backdrop of well-publicised advances by Chinese research teams, including the recent news that a Chinese team has become the first to test gene-editing technology CRISPR in human trials.

"The U.S. share of cancer research has been declining over the past decade," says the report, although all the countries covered show a steady increase in output. That slippage has come about largely because of the "significant increase in China's cancer research publication output." Other countries with a heritage in cancer R&D—including Japan, the UK, Germany, Italy, France and Canada—have seen their shares stay relatively stable. 

"With the number of cancer cases projected to nearly double over the next 20 years, we understand the unprecedented urgency to control cancer by deploying all available advantages that might spur research breakthroughs," said Elsevier's Brad Fenwick, who is heading up the data-gathering initiative.

The study is the first in a series of reports planned by Elsevier to help cancer researchers accelerate progress and mitigate some of the challenges associated with the development of "new operational approaches, policies, and funding strategies." 

An overarching report analysing the findings is due to be published before the end of 2017. In the meantime, Elsevier has set up a free-to-access database of cancer-related resources to support the Moonshot.