UK ‘in danger of falling behind the pack’ in cancer research, MPs told

The Health and Social Care Committee heard from specialists in cancer research.

Nina Massey
Thursday 14 September 2023 14:32 BST
The UK is a world leader in cancer research but risks falling behind the pack if it does not become more attractive to researchers, MPs have been told (PA)
The UK is a world leader in cancer research but risks falling behind the pack if it does not become more attractive to researchers, MPs have been told (PA)

The UK is a world leader in cancer research but risks falling behind the pack if it does not become more attractive to researchers, MPs have been told.

The Health and Social Care Committee heard that issues around data sharing and implementing the findings of clinical trials may be hindering the country’s research potential.

Professor Kevin Harrington, head of the division of radiotherapy and imaging at the Institute of Cancer Research, told MPs the UK is increasingly being seen as a less favourable environment for clinical trials.

We are in the pack, but we're in danger of actually dropping down in that pack in terms of our position and we're being outpaced by others

Professor Kevin Harrington, Institute of Cancer Research

He said: “I would agree we are world leading in cancer research.

“We are in the pack, but we’re in danger of actually dropping down in that pack in terms of our position and we’re being outpaced by others.”

Prof Harrington continued: “I think we need to be far more effective in the way we attract research leaders into this country.

“So we’ve had some issues around recruitment and retention of the brightest and the best.

“There are issues relating to when we go and we interact with pharma colleagues, and we ask for opportunities, for instance, in clinical trial activity to work.

“The UK is being seen increasingly, unfortunately, as a less favourable environment in which to conduct translational clinical research or indeed clinical trials.

The urgency should be the same because you look at the number of people who are unnecessarily dying, who could be saved, it starts to come on to the same scale as what we addressed in the Covid pandemic

Dr Susan Galbraith, AstraZeneca

“And in many respects, that is due to the fact that we’re not as nimble and not as quick as we could be in setting up and actually delivering on research.

“And then when we deliver on that research, regrettably we’re seen as a country where the products and the outputs of those research are not always put into place and we don’t always approve the novel therapies that we are part of establishing as being the new standards of care, which may apply around the world but don’t necessarily apply here in this country.”

Dr Susan Galbraith, executive vice president of oncology research and development at AstraZeneca, said a number of recommendations have already been made by various cancer strategies but have yet to be adopted.

She said: “This focus on early diagnosis, focus on collecting the data that’s already in the NHS and making it available more readily, that will be key.”

She said the issues should be addressed in a timeframe more in keeping with the response to the Covid pandemic.

Dr Galbraith said: “The urgency should be the same because you look at the number of people who are unnecessarily dying, who could be saved, it starts to come on to the same scale as what we addressed in the Covid pandemic.

“So the sense of urgency should be there to make a difference to one of the biggest killers that we have within the UK, which is cancer.”

The committee was also told that if there are favourable results announced by trials currently ongoing, the systems may not be in place to deal with it.

I think the current environment in the NHS is not great for the medical profession

Professor Sir John Bell, Oxford University

Professor Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said: “What worries me about this is that the NHS is not really ready to take it up. So who’s going to do it?

“And what are you going to do with the results? And let’s pretend we can diagnose half the pancreatic cancers early.

“Well, that’s pretty interesting, but then that puts a burden on other bits of the NHS.”

He added: “I think the current environment in the NHS is not great for the medical profession.”

The committee also heard that issues around data ownership, sharing and consolidation are an obstacle to cancer research.

Sir John said: “The data world is confused by data ownership, and there are lots of bits of the healthcare system that think that they own their bits of patient data, and they don’t want to play with the wider set of healthcare providers.

“Now that has multiple disadvantages – it’s massively disadvantageous to patients because it’s kind of helpful that your hospital knows what’s in the GP record and vice versa, that in many cases doesn’t happen at all.

“So that’s not helpful.

“It’s also not helpful in terms of running a healthcare system, because like any big organisation you really want to have access to all the data – who’s being seen where, what’s an efficient way to manage these pathways, how do you make that work?

“Cancer is a really important example of this, I have to say, because getting that right does require data flows.

“And of course, the third thing is that if you’re going to enable the innovation agenda, having access to that data is going to be hugely powerful.

“And the new developments in AI (artificial intelligence) that we’ve seen in the last year are going to make it not just important, it’s going to make it essential that we get access to that data, otherwise we won’t be able to use that for the discovery stuff.”

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