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Brain Tumours

Volume 458: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2007

The Department of Health is currently investing some £170 million a year in cancer research. We have the highest level of patient participation in cancer trials of any country in the world. Through the National Cancer Research Network we are providing the research infrastructure for 20 studies on brain tumours, seven of which are focused on adults and 13 on children.

Given that no fewer than 16,000 people a year are diagnosed with brain tumours, that they are the biggest single disease killing children and that more than half of those suffering aggressive brain cancers die within 12 months, is it not a scandal that the General Medical Council treats brain tumour research as a Cinderella sector and that, as a consequence, life-saving medical breakthroughs are delayed or denied?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who is Chair of the all-party parliamentary group on brain tumours. He is also here today, I think, to promote March as brain tumour awareness month. I know from his constituent, Sue Farrington Smith, who was one of the founders of the charity Ali’s Dream, that the hon. Gentleman has been very involved and shown his commitment in a number of ways. I understand the point that he makes. That is one of the reasons we have tried to increase the funding for cancer research across the board. Significantly, more than 60 per cent. of our total spend on non-site-specific research develops our understanding and ability to treat many different cancers. We have established, as he knows, the National Cancer Research Institute, primarily to identify the gaps and opportunities for future research. That is why I am pleased about the 20 projects that are under way, but clearly this is an area that needs looking at. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced in November that she has asked Professor Mike Richards to develop a cancer reform strategy to build on the 2000 cancer plan and to consider how we can improve cancer services, especially for the less common cancers, of which brain tumour is one, although I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s point about the mortality rate of those who develop brain tumours.

Does my hon. Friend share my worry that the big problem is early detection? People go to GPs and get passed on for other treatments, when what is needed is early diagnostics to show that they have a brain tumour, of whatever type. Does she agree that we need to give that support and extra funding to GPs?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point, which was raised with the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton), by the hon. Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright) in an Adjournment debate last year. In summary, it is necessary to consider early diagnosis. That is why the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence updated its referral guidelines for suspected cancers in June 2005. The guidelines are aimed exactly at the people my hon. Friend mentions—primary care health professionals—in order not only to identify patients who are most likely to have cancer but to see how we can identify the early signs and symptoms of cancers in children and young people. In addition, the NICE guidance on improving outcomes is a useful tool for trying, through the cancer networks, to get not only better diagnosis but better care and treatment plans for individuals who are affected by cancer of whatever form, including brain tumours.

The Minister will be aware that there is a new drug with great potential to deal with brain tumours—Temodal, which, it is hoped, will have NICE approval in June. She will also be aware, however, that approval has been delayed by 12 months because of a statistical error in the first draft of the NICE report. What would she say to my constituent, a 41-year-old father of two, who is dying of a brain tumour that, it is widely accepted, will respond dramatically to Temodal but who cannot receive it because Richmond primary care trust has a policy of not funding drugs that have not yet received NICE approval, despite the fact that everyone knows that that is a matter of only months away? What advice would she give—

PCTs have the authority to approve drugs even if they have not received NICE approval. It is always extremely difficult for families who are going through cancer or other diseases, but we have a process to try independently to come to the right conclusions about different drugs and treatments. It is difficult to plan for these things when people are experiencing such diseases and cancers as we sit here today. However, I hope that the hon. Lady will agree that in establishing NICE we have tried to provide the best independent mechanism for thoroughness as well as the opportunity for appeal, which is why the drug went back to NICE to ensure that NICE can make reasoned and properly thought through recommendations for the NHS. I understand that it is due to report in June this year.

The Minister has already mentioned the Adjournment debate that was held on 28 March last year, to which the right hon. Member for Doncaster, Central responded. In the course of that response, she was kind enough to indicate that she would be prepared to visit the children’s brain tumour research centre in Nottingham. Has there been a ministerial visit, and if so what was derived from it? If there has not yet been a visit, may I encourage her or one of her colleagues to go as soon as possible to speak to Professor David Walker and his colleagues about the valuable work that they do and how the Government might help?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. My right hon. Friend says that she is not aware of an invite, but of course she is always open to such invitations. We are mindful of the opportunities that we have to improve our knowledge and awareness of how the NHS can provide better services. I am pleased to say that in the past 30 years survival rates have improved for children. However, this is clearly a difficult area that poses different challenges to, say, leukaemia, but requires our attention. That is why we have tried to direct NICE to look for gaps and opportunities to further our knowledge while providing the best diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation services.