Britain’s leading cancer charity is pulling the plug on research centres devoted to offering patients potentially life-saving drugs, The Mail on Sunday can reveal.
Cancer Research UK funds eight clinical trial units where cancer patients across the country receive experimental medication, but insiders claim the charity is discussing shutting as many as half of them.
Cancer doctors say the move will drastically reduce the number of sufferers able to access these last-resort treatments, which are offered when standard approaches available on the NHS fail to have a significant impact.
One consultant oncologist, speaking on condition of anonymity, said: ‘The vast majority of trials in the UK cannot happen without the Cancer Research UK clinical trial units. If you shut down these units, then the number of trials that NHS hospitals can run will be severely impacted and the number of patients getting these drugs will be significantly reduced.’
The charity has suffered financially since the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, with its 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 laboratory. It is part of the charity’s wider strategy to focus on funding early-stage research rather than drug trials.
A consultant analyses a mammogram. Britain’s leading cancer charity is pulling the plug on research centres devoted to offering cancer patients potentially life-saving drugs
Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s Chief Clinician, also holds the senior role of Principle Group Leader at The Francis Crick Institute.
When the news was announced, medical commentators criticised the decision to prioritise funding to the London-based centre over other regional research labs.
A cancer expert, who works closely with Cancer Research UK, told The Mail on Sunday colleagues had also questioned the role Prof Swanton had played in the decision to fund The Francis Crick Institute, due to his links to both organisations.
‘There is a very real question of a 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 there is any conflict of interest.
Cancer doctors report growing difficulties setting up life-saving drug trials due to the impact of Covid. They say they have been instructed by Government officials to wind down studies into vital drugs as part of cost-cutting measures.
There are roughly three million people living with a cancer diagnosis in the UK, with 375,000 new cancer cases every year – with some 25,000 enrolled in a clinical drug trial annually.
Doctors can offer eligible patients the chance to enrol, however NHS Trusts usually do not 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 taking place in the NHS. The units, in England, Scotland, and Wales, provide cancer experts to design and conduct the study, and statisticians to analyse the results.
The Centre for Trials Research at Cardiff University specialises in blood cancer, while the University of Birmingham unit is home to experts in trials involving children.
Earlier this year, directors of the clinical trial units were told they must 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 shrinking of the sector will only compound 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 continued problems getting these studies back up and running.
GETTING DESPERATE: Breast cancer patient Constance Johncock, 32, has been on eight different treatments – including two clinical trials
Professor Nick James, a clinical oncologist at The Institute of Cancer Research, says: ‘This is a massive issue which isn’t going away. It means thousands fewer patients getting drugs which could extend their lives.’
One patient desperate to get on to a cancer trial is Constance Johncock, 32, from Kent, who has advanced breast cancer. The student nurse has been on eight different treatments – including two clinical trials.
When her treatment was suspended temporarily at the beginning of the Covid pandemic, her cancer spread to her liver.
The disease has now reached her lung and bones, and Constance is running out of effective treatments. She says: ‘It really doesn’t feel like there are many trials out there right now.
‘There are so many people like me diagnosed with advanced breast cancer every year, but it feels like access to these drugs is going backwards.’
Cancer Research UK’s Executive Director of Research and Innovation, Dr Iain Foulkes, said: ‘None of our ongoing clinical trials have had funding withdrawn because of the financial pressures of the pandemic or our support for the Crick.
‘The decision to contribute funding to the Crick Institute was made by our Trustee Board following the highest possible rating by an independent panel of international experts. Professor Charles Swanton, who has a lab at the Crick, had no involvement with any discussions or decisions regarding the Crick’s funding settlement.’