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Cancer Research UK Report

Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2023

Question

Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the report Longer, Better Lives: A Manifesto for Cancer Research and Care, published by Cancer Research UK on 28 November, regarding their priorities for investment in clinical research and innovation.

The Government welcome the Cancer Research UK report Longer, Better Lives, which rightly highlights progress made against cancer. We have invested over £100 million in cancer research in 2021-22 through the National Institute for Health and Care Research. We are working closely with research partners in all sectors, and I am confident that the Government’s continued commitment to cancer research will help us to build on that progress, leading to continued improvement for all cancer patients.

I thank the Minister for his Answer. The CRUK manifesto clearly highlights the priorities required for tackling rising cancer rates with a growing ageing population, including the need for more investment in research, greater disease prevention, earlier diagnosis through screening, better tests and treatments, as well as cutting NHS waiting lists and investing in more staff. Can the Minister outline what steps the Government will take to implement this strategy, allied with resources and updated infra- structure in all hospitals?

Absolutely. I thank the noble Baroness for the work that she does in this field. I welcome the manifesto, specifically on rebuilding the global position in research. We have done a good job on that: we have gone from a position of 26% of the clinical trial responses being in time to international standards to over 80%. The biggest prevention method that anyone could take is to stop smoking because, as we know, that is the biggest cause of lung cancer, so we are introducing steps to prevent smoking. On early diagnosis, we have introduced an excellent example in lung cancer. Some 60% of people used not to be detected until they were stage 4, which is often too late. Now, through the mobile lung cancer units, we are detecting 70% at stage 1 or 2, where they have a 60% chance of survival. Across the field, we are doing a lot on this that we can feel proud of.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that one of the causative factors of cancer is obesity? Some 40 million people in this country are obese, and according to the latest estimate it is costing £100 billion a year. Is it not time to adopt the campaign technique that Norman Fowler—now the noble Lord, Lord Fowler—successfully conducted in the 1980s? He had the courage to state the truth and make sure that it was successful.

Yes, we are taking extensive action on the obesity front. As well as being a major cause of cancer, it is the cause of a lot of ill health. We have taken a lot of action against 96% of the reasons given in obesity research on calorific intake, with regard to what people buy in supermarkets. Also, the soft drinks industry levy—the sugar tax—has decreased sugar in drinks by at least 14%.

My Lords, I congratulate CRUK on producing this magnificent report and manifesto. Continuing with the theme of research, the report identifies the necessity of further closing the funding gap in research of about £1 billion in the next decade. This research is in key areas where our scientists are leaders in the world, such as the early detection of cancer using cell-free DNA and technologies such as messenger RNA for vaccine production, using genomes and early protein expressions for early diagnosis. The Minister mentioned the key area of reducing lung cancer using known technology, but it is in discovery science where we need to increase funding, especially when government funding falls far behind charity funding, particularly from CRUK.

I agree that research funding is key. That is why I mentioned the £100 million that we spent in 2021-22. The Medical Research Council is also spending £125 million per annum on cancer research. That is allowing us to introduce vital things such as the point-of-care cancer treatments that our regulators that have brought in ahead of anyone else in Europe, showing the key flexibility that our regulators now have, meaning that people can have individualised cancer care. I agree that we need to invest in these sorts of activities.

My Lords, I recently had a meeting at one of our excellent specialist cancer hospitals. It explained that it had tens of millions of pounds in the bank that it would like to spend on facilities and equipment to support new cancer treatments, but it cannot. The only blocker is that it cannot get a certificate from the local integrated care board to authorise the capital expenditure. Frankly, I was astonished by that. I invite the Minister to explain, in terms that even I can understand, why the Government think it a good idea to prevent a world-leading hospital trust from spending money that it already has on much-needed cancer research facilities.

I am not clear on the details of the case but will happily take it up with the noble Lord afterwards. I agree that, clearly, we want our leading institutions spending money where they can really impact change, and that is exactly what we are doing.

My Lords, while any benefits of early cancer diagnosis will not be realised without timely treatment, the Government continue to not nearly meet the NHS target of 85% of patients starting treatment within 62 days of an urgent referral for suspected cancer. What assessment have the Government made of treatment delays on death rates, as well as anxiety levels for patients? If the Minister accepts the statistics that increased waiting lists for cancer treatment predate the pandemic, what will the Government now do differently?

We absolutely need to bear down on cancer wait times. That is why we have been expanding supply in this area: the 130-plus CDCs, which have done 5 million tests, are all about that, as are the 50 surgical hubs. This means that we are treating 26% more cancer patients this year than last year and that we have managed to reduce the 62-day backlog by 27%. More work needs to be done, but we are getting on top of it.

My Lords, the problem that the Minister faces is that things may well be getting worse. Because of the extensive waiting lists, one major cancer centre in London is saying that the number of people referred to the cancer pathway has rocketed, because of a large number of people on other waiting lists. Among those that it is now seeing for the cancer pathway, only 2% actually end up having cancer. At one level we can celebrate that, but we know that it is not because the numbers with cancer are reducing. People are being referred into the pathway because it is the only way that they will be seen at the moment.

No, I do not believe that is why people are being referred; it is to give them peace of mind. People know their own bodies and, if they are concerned about having cancer, they know that we want to put their minds at risk. I am familiar with that statistic. I had heard that 95% of people who go to these referrals, thankfully, do not end up with cancer but, boy, do they have peace of mind since we are able to give them that assurance.

I declare an interest, as I have a son who is an oncologist. As the Minister knows, one of the most serious forms of cancer—and growing at this time—is melanoma. The melanoma charities are campaigning to reduce the VAT on sun cream in order to reduce the incidence of this terrible cancer. Have the Government come to a view on this reduction of VAT?

I do not think that the Government have come to a view but I understand the point. I will take that back to the department and the Treasury.

My Lords, we are doing reasonably well with certain cancers—leukaemias and breast cancer—but very badly with pancreatic cancer and colon cancer. Most of these are asymptomatic for a long while, until it is too late. We desperately need a test that will indicate that there is a disease coming. What research is being done in this area and what money is being spent on it?

The noble Lord is absolutely correct that, while we have made good progress in many areas, pancreatic cancer is the hardest one and one where we need to do more. That is true all around the world, because the symptoms are so hard to detect. I will happily write with the details to give him an answer on that.