Britain’s largest cancer organization is pulling the plug on research centers dedicated to offering patients 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 receive experimental medication, but insiders claim the charity is considering closing as many as half of them.
Cancer doctors say the move will drastically reduce the number of patients who have access to these last resort treatments, which are offered when standard approaches available on the NHS do not have a significant impact.
An oncologist consultant said, on condition of anonymity: ‘The vast majority of studies in the UK cannot take place without Cancer Research UK’s clinical research units. If you close these wards, the number of studies that NHS hospitals can conduct will be seriously affected and the number of patients receiving these drugs will be significantly reduced.”
The charity has suffered financially since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, with annual income falling by £90 million, from £672 million in 2019 to £582 million last year.
Despite this, it announced last month that it would contribute £1 billion to the London-based Francis Crick Institute, the UK’s leading biomedical lab. It’s part of the charity’s broader strategy to focus on funding early-stage research rather than drug trials.
A consultant analyzes a mammogram. Britain’s largest cancer organization is pulling the plug on research centers dedicated to offering potentially life-saving drugs to cancer patients
Professor Charles Swanton, Chief Clinician of Cancer Research UK, also holds the senior role of Principle Group Leader at the Francis Crick Institute.
When the news was announced, medical commentators criticized the decision to prioritize funding from 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 colleagues also expressed doubts about Professor Swanton’s role in the decision to fund the Francis Crick Institute, due to his links to both organisations.
“There is a very real issue of conflict of interest here,” the expert said. ‘Prof. Swanton’s lab benefits from this funding, while many colleagues could lose their jobs if trial units are closed.’
Cancer Research UK denies any conflict of interest.
Cancer doctors report increasing difficulties in setting up life-saving drug trials due to the impact of Covid. They say they have been instructed by government officials to phase out studies of vital drugs as part of cost-cutting measures.
There are around three million people diagnosed with cancer in the UK, with 375,000 new cancer cases per year – with around 25,000 participating in a clinical drug trial each year.
Doctors can offer eligible patients the opportunity to enroll, but NHS Trusts usually do not have the staff and resources to conduct these studies on their own.
For this reason, Cancer Research UK’s clinical trial units are almost always involved in any cancer drug research that takes place in the NHS. The units, in England, Scotland and Wales, will 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 cancers, while the University of Birmingham is home to experts in pediatric studies.
Earlier this year, clinical trial unit directors were told to apply to receive funding as part of a new streamlined “core network.”
Those who fail the application process will see their unit closed. When we approached Cancer Research UK, it did not dispute insiders’ claims that as many as four could be shut down.
The industry contraction will only exacerbate existing problems for patients, doctors add.
When the Covid pandemic began in 2020, all clinical trials were temporarily suspended.
More than two years later, experts say there are ongoing problems getting these studies back on track.
GETTING DESPERATE: Breast cancer patient Constance Johncock, 32, has undergone eight different treatments – including two clinical trials
Professor Nick James, a clinical oncologist at The Institute of Cancer Research, says: ‘This is a huge problem that is not going away. It means that thousands of patients receive fewer medicines that can prolong their lives.’
One patient desperate for a cancer screening is Constance Johncock, 32, of Kent, who has advanced breast cancer. The student nurse has undergone eight different treatments, including two clinical trials.
When her treatment was temporarily stopped at the start of the Covid pandemic, her cancer spread to her liver.
The disease has now reached her lungs and bones and Constance has almost run out of effective treatments. She says, “It doesn’t feel like there are a lot of trials going on right now.
“Every year so many people like me are diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, but it feels like access to these drugs is declining.”
dr. Iain Foulkes, Executive Director of Research and Innovation at Cancer Research UK, said: ‘None of our ongoing clinical trials has had funding cut off due to the financial pressures of the pandemic or our support for the Crick.
“The decision to contribute money to the Crick Institute was taken by our Trustee Board, following the highest possible assessment by an independent panel of international experts. Professor Charles Swanton, who has a lab at the Crick, was not involved in any discussions or decisions about financing the Crick.’