October 5, 2008
Scientists Spurn ‘Unfashionable’ Cancers
By Nina Lakhani
As money floods in for breast cancer and leukaemia research, 80 per cent of people with lung tumours are dying within a year of diagnosis
Some of the deadliest cancers, such as those affecting the lung and pancreas, get the least amount of public money, while five cancers with some of the best survival rates, including breast and leukaemia, receive nearly two-thirds of the money.
Lung cancer experts described the findings as "soul destroying" and made a plea to scientists to stop sidelining the disease. About 80 per cent of lung cancer victims die within the first year, mainly because people are diagnosed too late.
According to experts, researchers are more interested in those cancers where breakthroughs seem most likely and those that are easier to study. Public sympathy and celebrity campaigning on behalf of some cancers raises their profile, which also attracts more interest and money.
Jesme Fox, the medical director of the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, said: "It is soul destroying that nothing much has changed. Lung cancer remains the most common cause of cancer deaths but is still stigmatised and attracts an unacceptably low amount of research funding. We have known since 2002 how bad the situation was but progress has been too slow and just not good enough. This is a horrid disease and a horrible way to die."
The report shows where government and charitable money was spent between 2002 and 2006; the findings will be presented today at the NCRI annual conference. Professor Sir Ken Calman, chairman of the NCRI, said: "This is extraordinarily useful data because it shows where things need to change. We need to use it to bring the right people from the scientific community together in order to stimulate new ideas, because at the moment, for cancers like lung, oesophageal and pancreatic, it is difficult to see where the next big breakthrough is coming from."
Dr Lesley Walker from Cancer Research UK says that the report highlights how research is funded. She said: "Most scientists do not have a permanent job. They are dependent on short-term grants, so they are only as good as their last research project. This means for a scientist to enter a field where there are few leads is a high- risk career move."
Breast cancer is now the most common cancer in the UK, and numbers are steadily increasing. Dr Norman Freshney from Breakthrough Breast Cancer said the research money was justified. He added: "A lot of the research for breast cancer is relevant for other types of cancer as well, so the knowledge is transferable."
Only 4 per cent of the 393m spent in 2006 was on prevention research, which experts agree is far too little. Jane Cope, director of the NCRI, said: "The proportions reflect the historical way in which medical research has been funded in the UK. Biological, hard- science, peer-reviewed research has been dominant, while other areas have fared less well. The increase in funding for prevention from 2 to 4 per cent is a step in the right direction but we are very aware the public wants us to continue this."
The UK's first pilot study for lung cancer screening will be announced today, six years after the idea was first proposed. But it will be at least another decade before there is enough information to consider a national screening programme.
Lorraine Williamson, 48, from Surrey, was successfully treated for lung cancer two years ago: an early diagnosis saved her life. She said: "I am living proof that lung cancer is a curable disease if it is diagnosed early. I think it is scandalous research has been so grossly underfunded and thousands of people continue to die every year. This disease has so much negative publicity around it and there are a lot of myths. It is not just a smoker's disease; it can affect anybody."
The NCRI's Ms Cope said: "For cancers with higher mortality rates, there are few survivors to lobby or campaign, nor are there many glamorous women supporting these causes. But if scientists want to benefit all patients they need to spread their expertise round a bit more."
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