Top cancer expert, 91: 'I'll go to jail for science'

February 27, 2004

One of the world's leading cancer researchers, 91-year-old Sir Richard Doll, has said he would be willing to go to prison for breaking one of the many new laws that academics believe are stifling clinical medical research.

Sir Richard, who was the first scientist to show a link between lung cancer and smoking, told a crisis meeting of clinical academics at Oxford University last Friday that something dramatic had to be done to alert the public to the serious constraints being placed on researchers working with patients.

He told The Times Higher : "I would without doubt be willing to break the law. People need to see how absurd these regulations are in preventing important clinical research."

At the meeting, researchers agreed that new layers of bureaucracy, such as the European Union clinical trials directive and the Data Protection Act, were seriously impeding research involving trials of new medical treatments.

Sir Richard said he could not have done some of his most important work if the Data Protection Act, which prohibits scientists checking patient records without prior consent, had been in place.

He said: "I couldn't have got hold of the thousands of records that I needed. (The act) is utterly destructive."

Charles Warlow, a clinical neuroscientist from Edinburgh University who delivered the main lecture at the meeting, warned that the "hyper-regulation" of clinical research would drive researchers out of the UK.

Professor Warlow said that researchers are very agitated.

Cancer Research UK confirmed this week that 44 new regulations governing clinical research had been introduced since 1995, many of them driven by EU policy.

Researchers are now keen to fight the new Human Tissues Bill, which has reached committee stage in Parliament. It states that researchers cannot use human tissue samples, including blood and urine samples, without prior consent.

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