Skip to main content

Health: Brain Tumours

Volume 809: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to encourage research into (1) the causes, and (2) the treatment, of brain tumours.

My Lords, I am hugely grateful to noble Lords for bringing this challenge to my attention. It is House of Lords advocacy at its best. We have met interested parties and I am pleased to say that we have a plan. Workshops are being booked, more research is being funded and we are encouraging more researchers to become involved. I am hopeful that this will mean progress and I am watchful to ensure that it delivers.

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for that positive response. Can he assure me that, in addition to seeking ways of being able to spend up to the £40 million research money made available, he will comment on the report of the chair of the all-party group on brain tumours, which says that there is greater need because there are no researchers able to undertake much of this research? Can he consider steps to address this imbalance and attract the brightest of medical and scientific minds into this uniquely complex area?

The noble Lord is right: it is extremely complex and one of the challenges we have is that the basic science needed to guide research is an unpredictable and difficult-to-manage process. That is why I have invited representatives of patient groups to try to guide the basic scientific research so that the talented cancer researchers who are available, who can do the more operational and applicable elements of the research, will have the material necessary to get on with their job.

My Lords, it is arguable that, of all the human organs, the brain is the main. People from the black community are nearly three times more likely to develop pituitary tumours at the base of the brain than their white counterparts. The reasons for this disparity are still not clear. Will the Government commit to encouraging further research into this issue? Also, only 14% of UK spending on brain tumour research is from the Government; the remaining 86% is from the charity sector. Although more money is not the total answer, will the Government commit to more funding for this vital area of research?

My Lords, £40 million was announced in May 2018 for brain tumour research. To date, £9.3 million has been committed and £5.5 million will be committed from April 2018 to 2023. At this stage, as the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, alluded to, the allocation of budget is not the issue. Making sure that the pipeline of applicable research is in place is our challenge. That is why we have worked well with interested parties to put together a plan for trying to ginger along the basic science necessary to get those research projects activated.

My Lords, in 2019, my 22-year-old son, Charlie, was diagnosed with a germinoma, which is a rare form of brain tumour. He was referred for proton-beam therapy at the Christie Hospital in Manchester by the excellent Dr Jeremy Rees of the National Hospital in Queen Square. First, I thank the Government for spending the vast amount of money required to establish this capability in the UK, which, I am pleased to say, I think has been successful. Is the second facility at UCLH still on track to come on stream in 2021? Perhaps the Minister might reflect on the clinical expertise that has developed over the last year since the establishment of the facility at the Christie Hospital.

My Lords, it is fantastic news that my noble friend’s son has benefited so well from our considerable investment in proton-beam therapy. I wish both him and his son good luck on behalf of all noble Lords. I am not aware of any current plans to open a PBT site in Birmingham, but I can reassure him that the UCLH site in London is due to open this year and we look forward to that very much indeed. It was hoping to open in 2020 but plans were impacted by the pandemic. As with any ground-breaking technology, clinical expertise in PBT will continue to increase as our hard-working frontline radiological staff treat more and more patients.

My Lords, I am most encouraged by the opening statement from the Minister and the Answer he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath. That goes a long way to answering my question, which was whether he agrees that to improve the outcome for patients with brain tumours, we need a strategy that addresses the clinical and research workforce; basic and clinical research, including genetics; research funding; and diagnostic and treatment centres of excellence—a strategy similar to one that dramatically improved outcomes for patients with breast cancer and leukaemia. Does the Minister agree that the director of the National Institute for Health Research—or anyone else that he feels appropriate—should be asked to develop such a plan?

My Lords, the noble Lord makes an excellent suggestion. Indeed, I am pleased to report that exactly such a strategy is in place by working with the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission, to which the department, the NIHR, NHS England and NHS Improvement are all active contributors. As part of the mission the department is funding new research through NIHR, encouraging new researchers to become involved, and we will be supporting the delivery of research as a key part of the new Tessa Jowell centres of excellence.

My Lords, many experts conclude that without new discoveries the outlook for patients with brain tumours is bleak. Given that many sufferers are in their teens or twenties and reliant on the support of their parents or carers, do the Government see it as a priority to support families, both during treatment processes and during the all-too-frequent bereavements?

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right that brain tumours and brain cancer are some of the most awful situations, particularly because they so frequently affect the young. That is why infrastructure spend on brain tumour research has increased. I am pleased to say that we received 62 applications for research funding between May 2018 and 2020, 10 of which have been funded so far, but more can be done in that area. Supporting families is, of course, part of the responsibility of the charities and trusts involved, and I wish the best to all those families who have been hit by this awful condition.

My Lords, when this issue was raised at Questions on 19 November last year, the Minister suggested that the quality of applications needed improving. He kindly offered to meet research charities working in this area to facilitate this. Can he tell the House which of these charities he has met or has an appointment to meet and how many applications have since been received?

My Lords, I have had three meetings, particularly with the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission, which has been extremely constructive and brought with it clinical expertise, patient groups and policymakers. Together we have worked on a plan, which I articulated in my opening remarks. It has emerged that it is not a question of the quality of the research applications. The quality of research in this area is fantastic. The problem is that we need to have better basic science at the very early stage of the pipeline in order to guide the later operable research suggestions. That is why we have organised the workshops, are feeding back to the applicants in the previous round of research and are actively engaged in this area.

My Lords, I declare my interest as a patron of the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission. I thank my noble friend for his sincere engagement with the challenge of improving the quality of brain cancer research since my Oral Question last year. He has taken the bull by the horns and I think we have a plan that is going to make a difference. I wonder if he might also comment on the difficulties that medical charities, which are such an important part of the funding landscape, are having at the moment because of the Covid crisis. This particularly affects hard-to-treat cancers such as brain tumours. Are the Government willing to give more support to these charities to ride out the difficult times they face at the moment?

My noble friend alludes to a situation that is grave and concerning. Hundreds of millions of pounds have disappeared from medical research charity income, particularly through the closure of second-hand clothes shops, which provide an enormous amount of income for British medical research. I pay tribute to the massive contribution of medical research charities in trying to move forward the science of medical research. This is an area we are deeply concerned about, and colleagues at BEIS and the Treasury are actively engaged with it. My noble friend is right that this a knotty situation to solve that we need to look at very carefully indeed.

My Lords, I was very privileged to be present in the Chamber when my noble friend Lady Jowell made her plea to improve brain tumour treatment, research and survival. The work since her death of the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission, referred to by the Minister and other noble Lords, on the new national strategy has been inspirational. The mission has developed clear practical steps and pathways to build the quality, quantity and diversity of research that the UK needs, such as addressing delays in opening clinical studies, programmes to train the UK’s first generation of brain tumour-specific positions, and dedicated brain tumour centres. What steps are the Government taking to make sure that the NIHR, the MRC and the UKRI work together to ensure that the progress we need comes about? What will happen to the NIHR funding money put aside for brain tumour research in 2018 that remains unallocated at the end of the five-year window announced three years ago?

My Lords, I also pay tribute to the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission and all its work in putting together a really thoughtful strategy for tackling this most difficult issue. NIHR cancer research expenditure has risen from £101 million in 2010 to £138 million in 2019-20, and its settlement in the recent spending review was generous. I am optimistic that there are more resources there. I reassure the noble Baroness that, although the £40 million for brain tumour research has not all been allocated yet, it is not going anywhere and we are working as hard as possible to ensure that the right kinds of research project are put forward for that money. I would like to see it allocated as soon as possible.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. I apologise to the noble Lords, Lord Carlile of Berriew, Lord Polak and Lord Jones of Cheltenham, that we did not have time for their questions.