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Brain Tumour Research

Volume 807: debated on Thursday 19 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what financial support they are providing for research into therapies and treatments for people with brain tumours.

My Lords, in 2018, the Government announced funding of £40 million over five years for brain tumour research as part of the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission, through the NIHR. We are relying on researchers to submit high-quality research proposals in this very difficult area. To encourage such applications, in April 2018 we released an NIHR highlight notice on brain tumour research asking research teams to submit collaborative applications, building on recent initiatives and investments.

I am grateful to my noble friend for that Answer. Nearly three years ago, this House was witness to one of the most courageous and moving speeches in its long history when Baroness Jowell argued for better support for people who, sadly, like her, die from rare cancers. We have made progress since then; fluorescent dye to aid surgical accuracy has been rolled out and new specialist brain cancer centres have been set up across the NHS. However, funding for research is lagging. Of that £40 million promised by the NIHR, only £6 million has been allocated. Can my noble friend tell the House what the department is doing to address this issue and is he prepared to meet with representatives of the brain cancer research charities in order to think of a way forward?

My Lords, the memory of Baroness Tessa Jowell has had a huge impact in this area. I remember well her testimony from these Benches and the mood of the House then. It was an extremely moving and impactful occasion and we remember her very fondly indeed.

My noble friend is entirely right that it is extremely frustrating that not more of this money has been spent. You will not catch me saying that very often at the Dispatch Box, but in this case, it is true. Managing the pipeline of research submissions through the process to the NIHR is a challenge. The NIHR has very high standards for the allocation of research grants and to date, it has struggled to find the number and quality of grants to support. That is why we will put a renewed focus on supporting the drafting of better grants, and I would be pleased to meet with the charities recommended by my noble friend in order to discuss the ways we can do that.

My Lords, I have been told that only 5% of national spend on cancer research is devoted to brain tumour research. Let us consider the collaborative work being undertaken on precision medicine by the University of Bristol and Queen’s University Belfast. What additional funding could be dedicated to this area, which provides individualised treatments to ensure better patient outcomes?

The noble Baroness is entirely right that precision medicine offers an enormous and powerful opportunity for us to tackle cancers. Brain cancers are particularly difficult to tackle, especially in adults, and we are daunted by the struggle to make further progress in this area. Since April 2018, we have spent £5.7 million on directly funded brain tumour research, but that is not enough and we would like to spend more. I am open to recommendations on how the money could be spent.

My Lords, brain tumours kill more children and adults under the age of 40 than any other cancer, and I am grateful to hear my noble friend’s acknowledgement that research funding is not yet enough. Does he agree with the proposal to change the system so that if a site-specific brain tumour grant is deemed fundable by a panel, it will automatically be funded during a highlighted brain tumour funding round such as the one announced last month?

My Lords, I am extremely grateful for a briefing given by Professor Richard Gilbertson earlier today on the specific question raised by my noble friend, which is grants for brain tumours in children. The NIHR system is a gold standard that is envied by the world and does not necessarily need to be broken and restarted. However, the point made by my noble friend is a good one and we are looking at ways of ensuring that more and better recommendations for grants go into the system in the first place so that, basically, we can spend the money more quickly.

My Lords, on 6 November this year, the Government spoke of developing quality research and funding through a successful partnership and sustainable alignment with the charity sector. When can we expect to see some results from that initiative, with work and funding to achieve those goals?

My Lords, the work of the charity sector in medical research is absolutely fundamental to national progress in this area. However, it too has been hit incredibly hard by Covid. We are having a number of dialogues with medical research sector representatives on how we can help. There will need to be a short, medium and long-term approach to getting back to where we were at the beginning of the year. How we bridge the current funding gap is a source of enormous concern to the department and the NHS. I cannot guarantee that we can necessarily embark on exactly the same framework that we envisaged at the beginning of the year, but I can reassure the noble Lord that we are very committed to the research community and we engage with it regularly on how we can help.

My Lords, several references have been made to our late and much-loved colleague Tessa Jowell, who I was proud to call a friend. Was she not prescient when in her last speech to this Chamber she said:

“I am not afraid. I am fearful that this new and important approach”—

referring to research—

“may be put into the ‘too difficult’ box”. [Official Report, 25/1/18; col. 1170]

When the Minister tells us in all sincerity that it is just too difficult to spend the £40 million that was promised, will he at least give this House an assurance that after this discussion he will take a personal and direct oversight of this matter, because it would be a great tragedy if those words of Tessa Jowell proved to be correct in the long run?

I hear the noble Lord’s words loud and clear. I reassure him that the good news is that Tessa Jowell left behind her in the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission an incredibly effective organisation that is holding the feet of Ministers firmly to the fire —not least through my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy, who is on my case in a very big way.

I recognise that this is one of the tricky scientific challenges of our age. We have struggled to tackle adult brain tumours for a very long time. There has to be investment in the basic science around them, in the techniques, such as the very focused radiology, and in provable therapeutics that work in the field. This is not going to happen overnight, but I reassure the noble Lord that we are committed to finding a solution.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Reid, referred to Baroness Jowell’s final speech, when she told us not to give up fighting this pernicious cancer. The noble Lord, Lord O’Shaughnessy, the then Minister, gave the assurance that the Government would not cease support for research into new treatments. Can the Minister confirm how many more research programmes into brain tumour treatments and therapies have been funded by NIHR since then? Is he confident that enough is being done?

My Lords, I have a table of all the brain tumour research projects that we have backed over the last 10 years and I would be very glad to share it with the noble Baroness in correspondence. The short answer is, not enough. I would like there to be more grants and of higher value, but I recognise the challenge. When I speak to the scientists—even Richard Gilbertson, who is a very measured practitioner in this area—they recognise that more work needs to be done at an earlier stage to ensure that they are the kinds of projects that the NIHR system can back. We need to have a conversation about how we can encourage the early-stage science and the creative drafting of fresh ideas for that pipeline. That is something that I am very keen to get on with and have a dialogue about.

I, too, was privileged to be present when Baroness Jowell spoke. In 1988, a 27 year-old man whose wife was eight months pregnant and who had just completed the London Marathon, was told by a neurologist that he had a brain tumour and six months to live. My Lords, that young man was me. I thank God and the doctors and nurses at the Royal Free Hospital that I am here to tell this story.

What is being done to educate and work with families and loved ones, who take the brunt of providing support for the patient and who most likely have no medical knowledge? While the Minister will be aware that not all brain tumours are cancerous, can he explain the Government’s commitment to fighting this niche but deadly form of cancer?

My Lords, on behalf of everyone, I thank my noble friend for that powerful personal testimony. I am sure there will be many others in the Chamber or listening who have known or lived through some association with brain cancer or cancer of some kind. It is extremely gratifying that in many areas of cancer we have made enormous progress—to the extent that it is a completely treatable disease in many respects—but in the area of brain cancer, that is not true. That is not good enough and we are working on trying to find a solution. Money has been spent, but not enough. We need more focus on this.

On my noble friend’s point on supporting families, that is something that trusts work on, but it is left to the charities and support organisations to do. In all areas of illness, that is something where perhaps we could or should be doing more and I completely take on board his comments.