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Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2011

It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate on primary care trust funding for neuroblastoma. I am delighted to welcome the Minister with responsibility for care services and look forward to hearing his response to these grave matters.

Neuroblastoma is a rare solid tumour cancer that tragically occurs in very young children and infants, primarily under the age of five years. It accounts for 17% of cancer deaths in children. Only 100 children are diagnosed with neuroblastoma each year in the UK. That is a blessing in itself, but it is of little comfort to the parents coping with the emotional strain of knowing that their child must face the long, hard battle against cancer.

The disease is caused by the development of cancerous cells in neural crest nerve cells, which play a key role in the development of the sympathetic nervous system. Most neuroblastomas begin in the abdomen or adrenal gland, next to the spinal cord or in the chest. In nearly 70% of children diagnosed, the disease has metastasised, which means that it has spread to other parts of the body. That makes it a particularly hard cancer to treat. The disease commonly spreads to the bones, and it can cause pain and difficulty in walking. Occasionally, it can affect the spinal cord, causing numbness, weakness and loss of movement in the lower part of the body.

The symptoms depend on where the cancer starts and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. Initial symptoms can seem as innocent as tiredness, fever and loss of appetite. The vagueness of those symptoms makes neuroblastoma hard to diagnose in the early stages. Because neuroblastoma usually develops in the abdomen, the most common symptom is a lump in the stomach, which can make the child’s tummy swell, causing pain and great discomfort.

The disease is treated through a variety of means, including surgery, chemotherapy and stem cell replacement. However, even after those treatments, high-risk neuroblastoma remains a major cause of death due to malignancy—patients have a two-year survival rate of approximately 20%. On top of that, the majority of high-risk neuroblastoma patients will experience disease relapse.

It saddens me, then, that a young constituent of mine, named Sam Daubany-Nunn, is being denied funding by his local primary care trust to receive vital treatment in Germany that might well be curative. Sam was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at the age of 16 in July 2008. Such a diagnosis is quite unusual in someone as old as that. At the time, Sam was undertaking his GCSEs at Colyton grammar school. He went through eight hours of surgery, gruelling high-dose chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant and radiotherapy. Fortunately, he responded well to his treatment and, despite his illness, he excelled at school, achieving high grades in every subject. He went on to pursue his studies at sixth-form level. I met Sam and his family in Seaton in my constituency. They live in Uplyme, right on the border between Dorset and Devon. That is why Dorset PCT is in the dock today.

Sadly, Sam became ill again in October 2010 and the family were informed that he had relapsed and that the neuroblastoma had come back. Sam went through six further courses of chemotherapy, two cycles of metaiodobenzylguanidine treatment at University college London and another stem cell transplant.

Following that, a new treatment was added to the front-line protocol in the UK for all new children diagnosed. That new treatment is a targeted cancer therapy called monoclonal antibody therapy. Monoclonal antibodies are made in a laboratory and introduced to the body intravenously. They attach themselves to areas on the cancer cells. In this case, the antibodies bind to a protein called GD2 on the surface of neuroblastoma cells. Those antibodies operate as markers for the patient’s own immune system, encouraging it to attack and destroy cancerous cells. Without those markers, the immune system would not attack cancerous cells, as those tumours are part of the body.

I was pleased to receive a letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health in response to a point that I raised with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House at business questions. The letter informed me that UK patients now get access to that treatment via the Cancer Research UK-supported European trial and that there is now wide clinical agreement that all children with high-risk neuroblastoma who might benefit should have access to monoclonal antibody treatment, as it increases survival rates to about 70%. That is extremely important. However, that clinical trial, led by Dr Penelope Brock from Great Ormond Street hospital, is not available in this country for relapsed cases—it is available for newly diagnosed cases only—and five or six patients a year would not meet the strict criteria for the trial.

A second trial is being established with wider eligibility criteria, and it will include those children who, like Sam, have relapsed, but it will not be available until January 2012. That is an unworkable time frame for neuroblastoma sufferers who cannot wait for the UK trials to start. That is certainly the case for Sam. As a result, some parents have opted to take their children for treatment in Germany, which is piloting the new trial that will be available across England in 2012. That has been paid for by their local primary care trust after an individual funding request. However, Dorset primary care trust, near my constituency, has refused to support the funding request in Sam’s case. His family have been raising funds to pay the €80,000—a very big sum—that the treatment in Germany costs. Indeed, they have remortgaged their house. Hon. Members will understand that not everyone can take that action, which is why I am raising this matter with the Minister today in the House.

Sam’s case is not isolated. After raising neuroblastoma funding in both the House and the media, I was contacted by a father whose son, Adam, suffers from neuroblastoma. Like my constituent, he is not eligible for the clinical trials in the UK and he made an individual funding request to Surrey primary care trust, which, like my constituent’s, was rejected. I understand that Adam’s father is now in contact with his local MP. I wish him and his family well and hope that he can receive the treatment that he needs.

That contrasts with the decision made by NHS Northamptonshire’s individual funding request department in an almost identical case involving a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). I will take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for all the assistance that he has given me in this regard. A young boy named Zach, whose case my hon. Friend has previously debated in Westminster Hall and who, like Sam, was not eligible for the clinical trial, was offered funding for monoclonal antibody treatment in Germany. In its letter to the family, the individual funding request department made this clear:

“Given the timescales involved NHS Northamptonshire does not wish further obstacles to stand in the way of treatment and we have agreed that if necessary the cost of monoclonal antibody treatment in Germany would be covered by NHS Northamptonshire.”

Fortunately for my constituent, there has been a last-minute change of heart by Dorset primary care trust. I received a call last night from the chief executive of Dorset PCT, who informed me that it had reviewed Sam’s situation and concluded that his was a unique case and that it would be unfair not to support the request for funding. That is fantastic news, and I extend my thanks to Paul Sly, the chief executive of Dorset PCT, for his assistance and for reviewing the original decision. However, I cannot help but feel that this case may not have had such a happy ending had I not been contacted by Sam’s family, written to the chief executive of Dorset PCT, raised the matter in the House, written on the subject in the press and finally secured this debate today.

I emphasise that other families might not be able to raise the funds to go to Germany. It is essential that Samuel gets this treatment now; otherwise, his chances of survival will be hugely limited. That is why it is good to raise this matter. That raises the question of how two primary care trusts can come to two completely different conclusions and why some people should be denied potentially life-saving treatment in such an ad hoc manner. People should be treated fairly throughout the country, and although I realise that the PCTs probably have a great deal of autonomy, I urge the Minister to iron out the problems, if he can. We can then get to January and February next year, when monoclonal antibody treatment will be available in this country.

Finally, I want to read from the conclusion of the letter from Paul Sly, the chief executive of NHS Dorset and of NHS Bournemouth and Poole:

“Our local processes for individual treatment requests are set up to try to deal fairly with the vast majority of requests. However as we went through the request it became apparent that the only possible funding route for Samuel at this time was a referral to the National Cancer Drugs Fund. Unfortunately as the Fund only covers ‘drug costs’ they were unable to assist.

In the light of the above, we carried out a further review of Samuel’s situation and concluded it is unique for three reasons…the treatment will be available in the UK later this year…he meets the trial inclusion criteria…he has to have the treatment within a specified time frame and cannot wait for the UK trial to start”.

That is extremely important.

I have put the issue on record. I hope that the problems faced by Samuel Daubany-Nunn and his family will reach a good conclusion. I reiterate to the Minister that there are not many such cases in the country, but it is extremely important that people receive this treatment when they need it, otherwise their chances of survival are very limited. I therefore ask the Minister to look at the general process. I am certain that NHS Dorset will honour the position that it has taken in its letter, but I am naturally keen to ensure that the Daubany-Nunns get help with funding Samuel’s treatment, because they very much need it, and it is only fair that people are treated similarly throughout the country.

It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) on securing it. A quintessential feature of Adjournment debates is that they give Back-Benchers the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House and a wider audience issues that are of real importance to the lives of our constituents—literally, in this case. I therefore thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue before us.

Few things are more distressing for a parent than learning that their child has cancer. Everyone’s heart would go out to any family that found itself in the same circumstances as Sam’s family, and I shall say more about their case in a moment. First, however, I want to say a little about the Government’s overall approach to paediatric cancer. I then want to say something about neuroblastoma and the Government’s approach to it. Finally, I want to say something about this case.

On paediatric cancer services, the Government are committed to improving outcomes for all cancer patients, especially children and young people who have to deal with this disease at such a young age. That means ensuring that patients have timely access to high-quality treatments based on the best available clinical evidence. That is very much the Government’s ambition and goal. We want to deliver care that is safe and effective and that provides the best possible experience for young patients. Let me highlight a number of things to demonstrate that commitment.

First, we will ensure that the recommendations in the guidance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence on improving outcomes for children and young people with cancer continue to feature in all commissioned services.

Secondly, one of the recommendations includes ensuring that children and young people with cancer are offered entry to any clinical research trial for which they are eligible and that adequate resources should be provided to support such trials. We expect providers and commissioners of services to be mindful of that recommendation, and that goes to the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about the lessons that need to be learned from this case.

Thirdly, NICE guidance recommends that children who are not eligible for clinical trials should be treated according to agreed treatment and care protocols based on expert advice and that resources should be provided to monitor and evaluate progress and outcomes for the patient.

Fourthly, we have committed more £150 million over the next four years to the expansion of radiotherapy capacity and to ensuring access to proton beam therapy for all high-priority patients who need such treatment. Evidence shows that, compared with standard radiotherapy, PBT leads to improved outcomes and reduced acute and late effects, such as growth deformity, loss of hearing and lowered IQ, which can lead to learning difficulties. We are exploring options for developing PBT facilities in England to treat up to 1,700 patients a year.

Through the national cancer survivorship initiative, we are improving the quality of services supporting the long-term needs of children and young people. That needs to provide for a seamless transition from children’s to adult services and a constant focus on outcomes.

We are demonstrating the affordability and efficiency savings that one-to-one support for cancer patients can bring. Based on the emerging evidence from test sites and the core principles defined by the children and young people group, four models were identified and are being piloted in four sites to help to bring innovation to the delivery of support for children with cancer. Those models include a primary treatment centre aftercare model; a shared care model of aftercare, in which care is shared between the primary treatment centre and GP and primary care services; and a nurse-led model of care, which may include variations such as a telephone or text message model of aftercare.

The Royal Marsden hospital, in my constituency, has tested the benefits for the patient experience of introducing a clinical nurse specialist to their late-effects set-up. That has been combined with developing psychological screening tools to improve access to appropriate psychological therapy services. A number of things are therefore being done, as we strive generally to improve paediatric cancer services.

Let me turn now specifically to neuroblastoma. As the hon. Gentleman said, neuroblastoma is a cancer of specialised nerve cells involved in the development of the nervous system and other tissues. It can occur anywhere in the body, but it most often occurs in adrenal glands, particularly in the tummy, as he said.

About 100 children, usually under the age of five, are diagnosed with neuroblastoma each year. Of them, about 50 are in the high-risk group, with the most serious forms of the disease. We want to give every one of those children the best chance to beat the disease by ensuring that they have access to specialist oncology centres and good access to clinical research trials.

The UK has a good and long track record of achievement in basic cancer research, and the Department of Health invests more in cancer research than in any other area of human health. We now have the highest national per capita rate of cancer trial participation in the world. That is relevant to the debate, because there is now wide clinical agreement nationally that all children with high-risk neuroblastoma who might benefit should have access to a trial of monoclonal antibody treatment.

For the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and others who are following the debate, I should explain that the monoclonal antibody is not available as a normal drug supplied by a pharmaceutical company. To obtain it, a production run must be commissioned and produce enough doses to treat a large number of children. Most UK patients will now access this treatment through the Cancer Research UK-supported European phase III trial. The trial is led in the UK by Dr Penelope Brock from the Great Ormond Street hospital, as part of the UK Children’s Cancer and Leukaemia Group.

On 12 May, my ministerial colleague Lord Howe was privileged to visit Great Ormond Street to see at first hand the impact of Dr Brock’s work on families affected by neuroblastoma, as well as the real hope it offers to those most seriously affected. The national cancer research network of the National Institute for Health Research provided the NHS support for the trial, which is running in all 20 childhood cancer clinical trial centres across the UK. It is anticipated that the trial will recruit 160 children between 2009 and 2013, and it is estimated that about 40 children a year in the UK will be eligible for the treatment.

The hon. Gentleman was right to raise concerns about children, particularly those with high-risk neuroblastoma, who have unfortunately been considered ineligible for the first trial. Dr Brock is now setting up a second trial, which should benefit those five or six patients a year who do not meet the strict eligibility criteria for the first study. The Department has agreed to fund a second batch of antibody for that purpose. I understand that Dr Brock is planning to run the second trial in five centres in England, from this autumn—not next year.

The proposal is with the clinical trials academic review board for Cancer Research UK, and once it is approved it will go to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency for approval. While the trial proposal is progressing, Dr Brock’s colleague in the European monoclonal therapy trial, Professor Holger Lode, has been piloting the new trial at the SIOPEN centre in Germany, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. It is perhaps inevitable that one or two patients will be identified as needing the treatment while the trial proposal is going through the necessary approval stages. The hon. Gentleman highlighted in that regard his own constituency case and that of the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone).

I am aware that some PCTs have paid for patients who meet the eligibility criteria to go Germany for the treatment. Non-routine treatment abroad will usually be considered in exceptional circumstances and primary care trusts may at their discretion take into account the individual circumstances of the patient and authorise treatment abroad that they do not normally fund. Each case needs to be considered on its merits as issues such as progression, relapse and the use of second-line treatments can all affect an individual’s suitability for treatment, including clinical trials. Each case needs to be discussed carefully with experts in the field.

The hon. Gentleman talked about his case experience and Sam’s diagnosis and mentioned the good news that the PCT has further considered the matter and, I understand, has taken into account Dr Brock’s views about the way the trial will work. I think that that has materially affected the judgment that the panel made originally and allowed it to make a new decision to allow for the funding of the monoclonal antibody treatment in this case.

I hope that the treatment, which, I understand, may already have started, will be a success and that that will be further good news for the family and offer them hope for the future. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will pass on my best wishes and those of my ministerial colleagues for Sam’s future and the success of the treatment and that we shall draw lessons from the case to ensure that, when other PCTs consider cases with exceptional circumstances, they are properly aware of the criteria that they should use.

Sitting suspended.