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Cancer Research: International Collaboration

Volume 589: debated on Thursday 7 May 1998

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3.29 p.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are in touch with American and Australian health authorities on the subject of cancer research in the light of the recently reported advances made in experiments to overcome the disease.

My Lords, I should like to assure the noble Lord that the Government are in touch with emerging advances of relevance to the National Health Service, wherever these may occur. There are regular communications between the Government and health bodies in America and Australia. In addition, the Medical Research Council (MRC), the main agency through which the Government support biomedical and clinical research, maintains extensive international links.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. I hope that the United Kingdom will be able to share in any consequent benefits that may arise. While this is good news and while the researchers concerned are due congratulations, should we not be cautious about use of the expression "break-through", as it is the later stage when the processes are applied to people, instead of mice, that will be most significant? Indeed, that may take some time.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful to the noble Lord for making those remarks. Indeed, I might well have taken the opportunity to make them in a subsequent answer had he not done so. It is unfortunate when one initiative is seized upon and unrealistically raises the hopes of people who may, even today, be suffering from cancer and, therefore, believe that a cure may be round the corner. I discussed this recent so-called break-through—and I agree with the noble Lord that that is an expression that should only be used with great caution—with a very well-known and distinguished research scientist yesterday. I have to tell the House that he said, somewhat sardonically, that the only beneficiaries of many recent cancer research projects were mice.

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that I am extremely pleased that both she and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, have urged caution over the matter? Further, is there any way in which my noble friend or her colleagues could prevail upon research organisations, especially medical ones, to be very careful when they release information which may well either encourage people too much or, indeed, scare them too much? In fact, we have just had an experience of how governments and other organisations can be stampeded into bringing forward absurd legislation—like that for beef on the bone—on the flimsiest of evidence and, as my noble friend said earlier, involving minuscule risk.

My Lords, I leave it to my noble friend Lord Donoughue to reply as robustly as he did in his responses to the Question regarding beef on the bone. However, I turn to the question of the influence of the perhaps premature remarks of some scientists on such matters. I should point out that there are difficulties of balance to be achieved. Whereas we seek every kind of co-operation between the international scientific community to collaborate on such projects, if, for example, a researcher in Boston—like the one quoted in press reports yesterday—wishes to make what I believe it would not be unfair to call exaggerated claims for the immediate effects of his research, there is little that we can do about it.

My Lords, is not one of the problems in this field the fact that scientists rely upon the success of research that they are undertaking at present to secure future funding? The only way that they can get future funding is to publicise that success in the best possible light. Therefore, can the Minister say whether there are any prospects of reviewing the funding for scientific and medical research, especially in the United Kingdom, so that scientists do not have to rely upon this means of obtaining funding?

My Lords, £290 million was spent on cancer research in 1996–97, which is the latest period for which I have figures regarding the United Kingdom. The Government's share of that amount was about £54 million, while most of the rest was provided by extremely respected and respectable cancer charities whose emphasis is on research. I do not believe that they would wish to feel that their decisions were swayed by immediate media stories, or anything of that kind.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that her remark about the scientist in Boston might have been a little unwise, because she was referring to Doctor Judah M. Folkman, who is probably one of the most brilliant cancer research workers in the world? His work has been going on for years and, indeed, is very systematic, steady and reliable. He really was not saying anything that was exaggerated, because it is really very exciting work.

My Lords, it may indeed be very exciting. I do not believe that anything I said could have suggested that it was anything other than exciting. I was responding to a question from my noble friend who suggested that such reports might perhaps cause people to become scared, or generate undue euphoria about the results. As always in the scientific community, one has as many views as one consults.

I was interested in the comments of Professor Karol Sikora yesterday who, as well as being an extremely distinguished oncologist in this country, is also chief of cancer research for the World Health Organisation. He said that, although researchers have had similar success with animal experiments in the past, very often they were disappointed when human trials failed. Indeed, he said that it would be a very long time before any of the work which was reported in the media was available as treatment. That was the simple point that I wanted to underline.

My Lords, will the Minister do what she can to encourage some genuine innovation in this field of research which does not necessarily imply treatment with drugs?

My Lords, I am very well aware of the noble Earl's interest in complementary therapies in this field. However, he will be aware that the research that the noble Lord, Lord McColl, and I are discussing, which was reported in the media yesterday, referred not to drugs but to the way in which one might cut off the blood supply to tumours. Indeed, it was more of a physical nature than a chemical therapeutic one.

My Lords, can the Minister inform the House whether any human beings have been used as guinea-pigs so far in this respect?

My Lords, as I understand it, the research that we have been discussing, which was based in Boston, features a cocktail of two drugs being applied to laboratory mice. However, I understand that there is the potential for human chemical trials to be started in this country next year. That, of course, will be dependent upon the further success of international collaboration.