Philip Hunt on the need to urgently improve the process for funding research into brain tumours
No one who was there could possibly forget the extraordinarily brave speech made in the House of Lords by Tessa Jowell a few months before her untimely death in 2018. A speech in which she movingly talked about her experience since developing a brain tumour.
Tessa warned that cancer is a tough challenge to all health systems, particularly to our cherished NHS. The UK has the worst survival rate in western Europe, partly because diagnosis is often too slow. Brain tumours grow very quickly, and they are incredibly hard to spot. She also told her fellow Peers that less than 2% of cancer research funding is spent on such tumours, and no new vital drugs have been developed in the past 50 years.
The Minister at the time, Lord O’Shaughnessy, was very sympathetic and acknowledged that we have lagged for a long time behind the best performing countries in Europe. Subsequently, the government announced, through the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), an extra funding commitment of £20 million for brain tumour research over the following five years – doubling the total to £40 million.
The money was much needed. Brain tumours are indiscriminate and disproportionally affect younger members of society. There are no preventative steps to avoid a brain tumour diagnosis, and we remain largely in the dark about the causes. But sadly, by July 2020, only £5.7 million of the government’s promised extra money had been allocated.
This was not down to a paucity of research funding applications. In 2018/19, there were 27 submission (up from 17 the previous year), but a mere four were successful. The picture in 2019/20 was similar, with a further 27 submissions for only three receiving support.
The charity Brain Tumour Research alongside the Neuropathologist Dr Kathreena Kurian have made suggestions on how to best improve the application process to facilitate a greater strike rate; as well as more effective and helpful approach to rejected submissions.
In addition to the support offered by the NIHR, the UK government could also support discovery science through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) and the Medical Research Council (MRC). Few organisations are willing to take on early stage, high-risk research, which is why Brain Tumour Research plays a critical role. Indeed, it reports that only 14% of UK spend is from the government, with the remaining 86% from the charity sector.
Somewhere between the NIHR and the UKRI / MRC lies a funding solution for brain tumour research. Responsibility, however, must not be shuffled around and passed on between these different agencies if we are to better help those living with a diagnosis.
In the Lords this week, I will urge ministers to knock heads together to ensure much more research into brain tumours gets underway. We owe it to Tessa’s memory and the thousands of patients so grievously affected by this devastating disease.
Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Heath is a Labour Peer and former Health Minister. He tweets @LordPhilofBrum
Published 18th January 2021