Bringing Science to Life: Building the Ideal Environment for Medical Research Requires More Than Just Money

By Woolnough, Sarah | New Statesman (1996), January 16, 2012 | Go to article overview

Bringing Science to Life: Building the Ideal Environment for Medical Research Requires More Than Just Money


Woolnough, Sarah, New Statesman (1996)


On 5 December, the government announced its life sciences strategy, containing a raft of measures aimed at bolstering the industry, furthering patient care and funding new medical breakthroughs. It was a welcome announcement, and one Cancer Research UK feels could be of great benefit to patients, in particular the early access scheme, which should allow new drugs to be used more quickly than before, and the enhanced use of patient data in medical research.

The proposal to help patients gain earlier access to drugs, especially in areas where there are no effective alternatives, has the potential to prolong and save lives while at the same time speed up the drug development process.

It takes around 20 years to get a drug from the early stages of development to patients as a result of the experiments, tests and trials that need to take place to first identify a suitable target, and then ensure that it will work. We believe that once we know drugs are safe (after phase one trials), under strict supervision and initially for conditions where there are no other treatment options, it makes sense to bring them to patients more quickly, in the hope they can reap the benefits of promising new medicines sooner.

Cancer patients can often find themselves in the devastating position of having no treatment options available to them - even though there are new drugs in the development pipeline. We know that many of these people would be willing to try new drugs that may help them,

One example of a drug that could have benefited from this earlier access approach is Sunitinib, a new generation kidney cancer treatment that was approved by NICE in 2009. Kidney cancer is a rare disease, with only a few thousand people diagnosed every year, and only one in ten people diagnosed surviving beyond five years of diagnosis. In 2008 the only available treatment option was immunotherapy; if patients weren't suitable for this, or if it didn't work, there were no other options available.

Because kidney cancer is such a rare disease, it took a relatively long time to run large enough trials to gather sufficient evidence for Sunitinib to be approved. However it showed considerable promise in clinical trials, with extremely encouraging results in the early stages. It is highly likely that its development would have benefited from early access, and could have led to it being available to patients much sooner.

The early access scheme will also be positive for the pharmaceutical industry, as it should create strong incentives for companies to develop drugs for smaller groups of patients, with the potential for an earlier return on their investment. This in turn, has the potential to encourage pharmaceutical companies to invest in the UK.

We have encouraged the government to think boldly in this area. We therefore welcome their response. However, it is really important that it now moves quickly to take forward this proposal, and monitor its implementation, so patients can start getting these cutting-edge treatments as soon as possible.

Knowing me, knowing you

The second measure we believe offers much potential is that of enhancing use of patient data in medical research.

In November, within the Autumn Statement, Chancellor George Osborne announced a number of measures that would improve the use of patient data in research, including a new secure Clinical Practice Research Datalink. In the Life Sciences package that followed in December, the Prime Minister built on these measures - outlining a proposal to consult the public on how their data could be more routinely used in research, by introducing an "opt out" clause into the NHS constitution, rather than the current "opt-in" system.

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We believe this could be highly beneficial to researchers. Cancer Research UK is the world's largest independent organisation dedicated to cancer research. …

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