Research intelligence - Five-year plan to tackle three killers

Charity to target lung, pancreatic and oesophageal cancer via centres of excellence. Zoe Corbyn reports

December 4, 2008

Cancer Research UK has launched a new five-year plan spelling out how it intends to spend £1.5 billion in science funds from 2009 to 2014.

The strategy earmarks greater investment for research into pancreatic, oesophageal and lung cancer.

It has also announced that 20 new "centres of excellence" will be established in universities across the UK to bring basic and clinical scientists together. More research on new radiotherapy and surgical techniques is also pledged.

The charity is the largest funder for most types of cancer research in the UK, spending about £300 million annually. The five-year, high-level plan will be used to guide its decision-making and investment.

"(The) strategy aims to reduce the number of people dying from cancer, particularly those who suffer from some of the hardest forms of the disease to treat successfully - lung, pancreatic and oesophageal cancers," said Harpal Kumar, the chief executive of Cancer Research UK.

"In these three cancers, there has been a degree of nihilism and even a defeatist attitude, which has led to limited research activity. It is our responsibility to do more."

Currently around one in three people in the UK is diagnosed with cancer and one in four of those dies from the disease. The top ten most commonly diagnosed types are (in order): breast, lung, bowel, prostate, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, bladder, melanoma, stomach, oesophageal and pancreatic cancer.

While survival rates have improved for almost all of the common cancers (breast cancer now has a survival rate of nearly 70 per cent over 20 years), less than 5 per cent of those with pancreatic, oesophageal or lung cancer will survive 10 years, despite significant research including that conducted by Cancer Research UK.

Peter Johnson, chief clinician of Cancer Research UK, said that funding would now focus more intently on research that was "orientated towards reducing mortality from cancer".

"The three cancers on which we are particularly focusing are (those) among the top 10 in terms of incidence with the poorest survival figures. Prognosis (for these) has unfortunately changed very little in the last 10 or 20 years," he said.

Professor Johnson said that extra money for these areas would not come at the expense of research into other cancer types, which receive the largest portion of their funding from Cancer Research UK, but from increases in funding the charity expects to attract as the current economic crisis eases. The plan is also to pull together expertise from different research areas.

"We are keen to excite the enthusiasm of the scientific and clinical research community in these areas ... It is not a question of moving away from the areas where we already have successes, but ensuring we (also) focus on areas where we perceive there is most scope for progress."

The locations of the 20 new centres of excellence will be announced from January.

Spread across the country and set up through university medical schools where there is already substantial work funded by Cancer Research UK, the centres of excellence are intended to complement the charity's five core funded institutes in London, Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester and Glasgow.

Each centre will have a distinct research strategy and home in on particular areas to build long-term research capacity.

The centres will eventually account for about two thirds of Cancer Research UK's annual budget.

"We see (the centres) as the mechanism by which we will translate science into medicine as quickly as possible ... there will be a particular emphasis on bringing together the clinical and the basic science research teams," said Professor Johnson.

He added that the strategy would see more research focused on early detection and prevention to help doctors diagnose cancer, and on research into new radiotherapy and surgical techniques, which has declined in recent years.

John Neoptolemos, a specialist in pancreatic cancer and head of the School of Cancer Studies at the University of Liverpool, who contributed to the strategy, welcomed the move.

He said it was good that the centres of excellence would be spread around the UK to where cancer populations were, and that the centres would unite basic and clinical scientists, who often wanted to "do their own thing".

The Cancer Research UK strategy comes as the Breast Cancer Campaign announces plans for a dedicated breast cancer tissue bank for scientific research. The bank is expected to open in autumn 2009 and will be the first of its kind in the UK and Ireland.

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