Cancer charity to end research centers devoted to supplying potentially life-saving drugs
Britain’s leading cancer charity is ending research centers devoted to providing patients with potentially life-saving drugs, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Cancer Research UK is funding eight clinical trial units where cancer patients across the country are given experimental drugs, but insiders say the charity is considering closing up to half of them.
Cancer doctors say the move will dramatically reduce the number of people with cancer who can access these last-resort treatments, which are offered when standard approaches available on the NHS fail to have a significant impact.
A consultant oncologist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: ‘The vast majority of trials in the UK cannot take place without Cancer Research UK’s clinical trial units. If you close these units, the number of trials NHS hospitals can carry out will be badly affected and the number of patients receiving these drugs will be drastically reduced.
The charity has suffered financially since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, with its annual income having fallen by £90m, from £672m in 2019 to £582m last year.
Despite this, it announced last month that it would donate £1billion to the London-based Francis Crick Institute, the UK’s leading biomedical laboratory. It’s part of the charity’s wider strategy to focus on funding early-stage research rather than drug trials.
A consultant analyzes a mammogram. Britain’s leading cancer charity is ending research centers dedicated to providing cancer patients with potentially life-saving drugs
Professor Charles Swanton, Chief Clinician at Cancer Research UK, also holds the senior position of Senior Group Leader at the Francis Crick Institute.
When the news broke, medical commentators criticized the decision to prioritize funding for the London-based center over other regional research labs.
A cancer expert, who works closely with Cancer Research UK, told The Mail on Sunday that his colleagues had also questioned the role Professor Swanton had played in the decision to fund the Francis Crick Institute, due of its links with the two organisations.
“There is a very real issue of conflict of interest here,” the expert said. “Prof Swanton’s lab benefits from this funding when many colleagues could lose their jobs if the test units are closed.”
Cancer Research UK denies any conflict of interest.
Cancer doctors are reporting growing difficulties in setting up lifesaving drug trials due to the impact of Covid. They say they have been instructed by government officials to end lifesaving drug studies as part of cost-cutting measures.
There are around three million people living with a cancer diagnosis in the UK, with 375,000 new cases of cancer each year – including some 25,000 who enroll in a clinical drug trial each year.
Doctors can offer eligible patients the option to enroll, but NHS Trusts generally don’t have the staff and resources to run these trials on their own.
For this reason, Cancer Research UK clinical trial units are almost always involved in any cancer drug study that takes place in the NHS. The units, in England, Scotland and Wales, provide cancer experts to design and conduct the study, and statisticians to analyze the results.
The Center for Trials Research at Cardiff University specializes in blood cancer, while the University of Birmingham unit houses experts in trials involving children.
Earlier this year, directors of clinical trial units were told they had to apply to receive funding under a new streamlined ‘core network’.
Those who fail the application process will have their unit closed. When we approached Cancer Research UK, he did not dispute insider claims that up to four could be closed.
Shrinking the sector will only aggravate existing problems for patients, doctors add.
When the Covid pandemic started in 2020, all clinical trials were temporarily suspended.
More than two years later, experts say there are continuing problems getting those studies back up and running.
GETTING DESPERATE: Breast cancer patient Constance Johncock, 32, has had eight different treatments, including two clinical trials
Professor Nick James, clinical oncologist at the Cancer Research Institute, said: ‘This is a huge problem that is not going away. This means that thousands fewer patients are receiving drugs that could extend their lives.
One patient desperate to take part in a cancer trial is Constance Johncock, 32, from Kent, who has advanced breast cancer. The nursing student has undergone eight different treatments, including two clinical trials.
When his treatment was temporarily suspended at the start of the Covid pandemic, his cancer spread to his liver.
The disease has now reached her lungs and bones, and Constance has run out of effective treatments. She says, “There really doesn’t feel like there are a lot of trials going on right now.
“There are so many people like me who are diagnosed with advanced breast cancer every year, but it feels like access to these drugs is shrinking.”
Cancer Research UK’s executive director of research and innovation, Dr Iain Foulkes, said: ‘None of our ongoing clinical trials have had their funding withdrawn due to the financial pressures of the pandemic or our support for Crick.
“The decision to contribute funding to the Institute of Crick was taken by our Board of Trustees following the highest possible rating by an independent panel of international experts. Professor Charles Swanton, who has a laboratory at Crick , was not involved in any discussion or decision regarding the settlement of Crick’s funding.