After reading through the comments on the kidney cancer/NICE post, one question crops up again and again – “What is the point of donating money to cancer research if the resulting drugs are too expensive to give to patients?”
This is a very good question, and one that’s clearly rumbling around the public consciousness at the moment. So here are some very good answers as to why giving to cancer research charities is very definitely a great investment.
‘Treatment’ is not just about drugs
Firstly, improving cancer treatment is emphatically not just about developing and testing better cancer drugs. Certainly, drug discovery is a vital part of what we – and others – do. But it’s a huge oversimplification to think that the story begins and ends with drugs.
For a start, cancer treatment almost always involves either radiotherapy or surgery – both areas of intensive research that aren’t so attractive to commercial funders. To this end, we’ve recently made a big investment in a new radiobiology research institute in Oxford.
But cancer also needs to be diagnosed, and treatment needs monitoring – so there are huge efforts underway to improve and speed up cancer diagnosis and to find ways to monitor the success – or failure – of treatment.
For example, almost every week we see a new paper that finds a new potential biomarker to detect cancer, and all of these need to be followed up in larger research studies. (Some examples here, here and here).
Screening is another important aspect to beating cancer – the earlier you can detect cancer, the greater the chance of a successful outcome. So we’re investing in a number of projects looking at cancer screening, including UKCTOCS – a study to test the benefits of ovarian cancer screening in 200,000 women.
Cancer research is not just about improving treatment and detection
Understanding what causes cancer, who gets it, and why, is a huge area of research. For example, we know that our diet is very important in determining our risk of cancer – yet we’re still very much in the dark as to how. Huge studies are going on across the world looking at how diet and other lifestyle choices can affect our risk of the disease. For example, we’re funding the two UK arms of EPIC – the largest study of diet and cancer ever undertaken.
And no consideration of ‘cancer research’ is complete without mentioning the worldwide hunt for new cancer genes. Gene hunters have had notable successes, finding ‘strong’ predisposition gene faults like those in BRCA genes – but now they’re trawling the net wider to find the small genetic variations linked to cancer risk. And this research is time consuming, expensive and slow-paced, yet fundamental to our understanding of who gets cancer and how to treat them. Over the past year or so we’ve seen the discovery of new genes linked to breast, prostate, bowel and lung cancer – and many of these studies were funded by Cancer Research UK.
A lot of science fails
But, thinking back to the lab – in its purest form, science is a slow, methodical process of testing theories and finding out which ones work. For every medical breakthrough, for every Herceptin, there were hundreds of blind alleys and failed ideas – that’s the nature of science.
If a researcher could be sure that an experiment would work at the outset, it wouldn’t tell him or her anything new, and would be a waste of time and money. It can be a frustrating, lonely process – in the lab, there’s as much luck as there is judgement. Thankfully, even a ‘failed’ result adds to the sum total of human knowledge – if the failure is noted and communicated, no-one else will make that mistake again.
Science is cumulative
Moreover, each scientist’s work builds on the work of their predecessors. No breakthrough, no discovery, no progress, would be possible without the years of research that lays down the groundwork.
In the early stages, much of this groundwork might be viewed as ‘blue skies’ research – not profitable for pharma companies to fund, so it falls into the hands of the research charities or Government-funded scientists. A good case in point here is Herceptin – although much of the later development work was done by Genentech, Cancer Research UK scientists and others around the world put in years of painstaking background research, enabling us to understand the role of the molecule (HER2/ErbB2) targeted by the drug.
Cancer research charities don’t just do research
It’s also worth pointing out that the money given to cancer charities goes a lot further than just funding scientists and doctors to do research.
Indeed, without the concerted efforts of several medical research organisations, and others, the UK smoking ban may not have happened – something that will help save thousands of lives every year. Another good example is the introduction of the bowel screening programme – pressure from cancer charities, not to mention a few uncomfortable news headlines, helped to make it a reality.
It’s easy to feel a sense of futility when NICE turns down yet another cancer drug, or when we hear the latest horror stories about the NHS. But in fact charity supporters should feel empowered. For example, more than a million people are regular supporters of Cancer Research UK – and that’s a big voice. We’ve run a number of political campaigns over recent years, including the highly successful Cancer2020. With the help of our supporters we can really make the Government sit up and listen.
And in some cases, things are changing. We’re starting to see the introduction of what is known as ‘risk sharing’ schemes for expensive drugs. A recent example of this is the agreement reached over the use of the drug Velcade, which is used to treat a type of blood cancer called multiple myeloma.
Here, the Government agreed that they would only give manufacturers money for the drug where patients showed improvement after treatment (in this case measured by a certain level of tumour shrinkage) and not for those who didn’t. Although they’ve not yet been widely adopted, many people think that such schemes could help to provide greater access to pricey drugs for people who will benefit from them. (There’s a pdf file with more information about the Velcade scheme here.)
To sum up
Not all cancer research is ‘sexy’. A single discovery can take decades. Sometimes it throws up new questions that, in turn, can take a decade to answer. Cancer’s a complex question, and there are no easy answers. It’s vital that the efforts of medical researchers around the world are supported with continued funding.
And finally, let’s not forget the vital lobbying role that charities, and their supporters, can take to make change happen. As we say in our vision statement – together we will beat cancer.
Henry and Kat
Ian Southward October 7, 2010
I dont need to know the ins and outs of where CR spend the money, I like everyone else just wait to see results. I’m happy to give every month like I do. Maybe in my lifetime there will be a breakthrough that will save lives. There wasnt the same hopes around when my Mum and Dad died through the disease. Maybe, it will help me in the future should I succumb to the same disease, we just dont know, we just have to believe and keep looking.
Kat January 29, 2009
Deciding which charity to support is a personal decision – after all, only an individual can decide what causes are significant and important to them, and there are so many worthy causes in the world.
Of course we are very grateful that many people choose to support Cancer Research UK. And we are always trying to demonstrate our progress and the impact we are making in beating cancer.
That’s what we’re doing through this blog and through our website – for example, here are some of our achievements through the decades: http://info.cancerresearchuk.org/cancerandresearch/progress/
We are making progress in beating cancer. Long-term (ten year) survival rates have doubled over the past 30 years thanks to improvements in diagnosis, screening and treatment.
For example, breast cancer survival rates are expected to continue to improve significantly – in the 1970s five-year survival was around 50 per cent compared with about 80 per cent these days, and nearly three-quarters of people with the disease survive for 10 years or more.
And bowel cancer survival rates have substantially increased since the 1970s, when just over one in five men and women with the disease survived five years or more. Today, more than a half are expected to survive bowel cancer.
None of this would have been possible without the committed work of thousands of scientists, and Cancer Research UK funding has played a vital role in many of the most important breakthroughs in cancer science and treatment over the years. Our work is almost entirely funded by public donations, which allow us to continue to find new ways to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer to improve survival in the future.
If you would like to find out more about how donations to Cancer Research UK are spent, please spend some time reading the blog, and looking at some of these pages on our website.
Our current research:
Our progress and achievements:
Our new five-year strategy:
Our annual reports and accounts:
Facts about us:
John Somebody January 28, 2009
P.S. My life has been influenced by cancer, as my Mum, who I loved, and love, dearly, died of lung cancer, after years of buying the vector,(around 40 fags a day). Her death, and suffering, doesn’t seem to compare much with that inflicted on people, to make this country rich enough, to have an N.H.S.
John Somebody January 28, 2009
I’ve asked repeatedly for someone at Cancer Resaerch U.K., to tell me why I should donate anything, or work for any cancer research charity, rather than any other. There are plenty of them, some of them helping foreign victims of British practices of exporting terror, (murder weapons, torture equipment, etc.), corruption, and poverty, generally to create the situatiions, that refugees have to run away from. Then there are the animal and human victims, of research, used to cover up progress in defeating illnesses, like cancer, apparently to peretuate more expensive ways to treat sufferers. . . . . .The list is too long to complete here. I have been told, many times, that it’s my choice, but when I point out, this does not tell me why I should help Cancer Research, rather than others, ( for which I expect to be ignored, if, as I suspect, C R supporters / workers, don’t have an answer, which you should know, is more than a reply).
Instead, I keep getting e – mails, thanking me for my interest, which I usually ignore, and now, at last I thought, one which directed me to a relevant page, on a website, where I might find reason to change my attitude. Hmmmm, I’m still looking for an answer to my innocent question, which I innocently posed originally, to a street collector, who seems, to have innocently passed the question on to someone she mistakenly belived to be more knowledgeable than her. I would be content to accept that as proof, that you don’t have an answer, but the box beneath this, which invites me to ask for follow up comments, just might leave me in ignorance of one, if I don’t tick it. I have come to expect nothing more from your people, than irrelevance, but then, there just might be someone who this reaches, who can justify you being given more resources. I have a couple of thousand pounds, in my fighting fund, which you can have, as well as my spare time, which I’m always willing to divert, away from issues I could work for, to make room for something more urgent, or necessary, when the need arises.
Go, on then, I’ll take a chance, on ticking that box, not that I have great interest in what you do, but I do have a willingness to develop that interest, if someone there, can simply tell me why anyone should.
Kat September 15, 2008
Thanks for your comments!
Tony T September 14, 2008
Anybody who has been touched by cancer will understand the importance of research.
Whatever happens; we must never undervalue the benefits gained and the need for ongoing research.
Lara August 27, 2008
You never really think about the other aspects of cancer research and how important they are. Thanks for reminding me that although important, it’s not just about cancer drugs.