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The EU and Cancer Research UK – does it matter?

by Layla Theiner | Analysis

1 April 2011

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How can the EU help beat cancer?

Frequently demonised in the UK press over bureaucratic rules about the bendiness of bananas or our right to govern ourselves, there’s often a lot of scepticism in the UK about the role of the European Union (EU).

But the EU is the UK’s largest trading partner and has made working with other EU countries easier in some ways. It’s easy to forget that EU decisions generally have to be agreed by the UK Government at some stage, even if Ministers occasionally fail to emphasise that publicly.

Whatever you think of the EU, it’s undeniable that its decisions have a big impact on organisations here in the UK, and Cancer Research UK is no exception.

As the biggest funder of cancer research in Europe, it’s vital that we engage with policymakers in Brussels to make sure scientists and patients’ voices are heard.

A significant proportion of UK laws originate in some form in Brussels, though estimates vary between 20 and 40 per cent – some even go as low as nine per cent and as high as 80 per cent.

The EU’s influence also depends on the subject area – it has ‘competency’ in some areas, such as regulation of pharmaceuticals and the single market including labelling of products, whereas other topics, like how countries organise their health services, stay with the individual countries themselves.

Research and the EU

The EU is currently looking at several important issues for research into cancer and the charity sector, such as how clinical trials should work.

Clinical trials are vital in cancer research: without them, we wouldn’t know which treatments are best for cancer patients. We’re funding around 200 clinical trials, so have a very strong interest in working with all levels of government, including the EU, to provide a supportive environment for conducting trials in the UK.

Under the EU’s Clinical Trials Directive (CTD), all trials that involve medicinal products must meet a number of legal obligations. The CTD aims to standardise research in clinical trials throughout the EU. It was “transposed” into UK law and came into force on 1st May 2004.  Yet despite its goal of improving things, many scientists have raised their concerns about the Directive and criticised the way it works in individual countries.

For example, we think the CTD has made setting up a clinical trial for a new cancer treatment more complicated than it needs to be. That’s why we’re calling for clearer and more straightforward processes for applying for approval for, conducting, and monitoring of clinical trials.

We’re also increasingly involved in international research collaborations, such as:

  • The European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC), the largest-ever study of the links between diet and health. Important discoveries, such as the link between excessive red meat consumption and cancer, have resulted from this project.
  • The International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC), which aims to obtain map the genomic changes in 50 different types of cancer.
  • The International Cancer Benchmarking Programme (ICBP), which is working to identify the causes of survival differences between countries with comparable health care systems and high quality cancer data (England, Northern Ireland, Wales, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Canada and Australia); and
  • The International Cancer Research Partnership (ICRP), a unique alliance of cancer organisations including several North American partners, working together to make best use of their combined resources and capitalise on the benefits of the worldwide expansion in cancer research.

Our world-class scientists, doctors and nurses collaborate with cancer experts in over 50 countries. Researchers in our five Institutes and in joint Department of Health/Cancer Research UK funded Experimental Cancer Medicine Centres (ECMCs) receive funding from Cancer Research UK to make sure the infrastructure we need to support world-class research is in place.

These researchers are also encouraged to apply for grants from other funding bodies, and several of them receive support from Europe. The EU has a large budget to fund health research.  The European Commission (via the department responsible for research, DG Research and Innovation has a budget of €50.5bn (£45bn) for 2007-2013 with support available for particular health topics, such as translational research and early clinical trials.

We’ve been calling for the EU to continue to support research in key areas of cancer research.

We’d also like to see improvements to the processes for administering funds, to make the system less bureaucratic, and for greater measures from the EU and national bodies to ensure researchers know about the opportunities available and how to access them.

Healthy living and the EU

At Cancer Research UK, we’ve led the way in many areas of health policy, particularly tobacco legislation, where we’ve become internationally recognised for the leadership role we played in securing international agreements to reduce the terrible toll of smoking.

The EU is currently reviewing vital piece of European legislation, the Tobacco Products Directive. This includes rules on how cigarettes can be packaged – an area we’re obviously interested in.

For example, there’s strong evidence that picture warnings on cigarette packets encourage smokers to think about quitting and work better than text warnings. So we’d like to see the EU bring in mandatory picture warnings on both the front and back of the pack, covering at least 80 per cent of the surface. As well as helping people quit, this stops the pack being used as a marketing tool.

But we could go further. Standardised packaging – also called plain packaging – where cigarette packets could no longer be branded, could help cut smoking in three main ways:

  • making health warnings more prominent;
  • decreasing the promotional power of the pack;
  • and preventing use of labels and creative devices that may deceive consumers. 

Research shows that warnings on cigarette packets are an effective way to remind smokers about the dangers of tobacco and encourage them to quit; the tobacco industry acknowledges the pack as a marketing tool; and using soft, light colours in packets deceive people into believing they are less harmful.
The Australian federal government has recently announced that it wants to introduce plain packaging in 2012, setting a standard that we think the EU should follow.

The EU is also looking at food labelling. After quitting smoking, keeping a healthy body weight is one of the best ways to reduce your chances of getting cancer. That’s why we’re working with a range of health organisations to lobby the EU for clearer information on food packaging to help people know exactly what they’re eating.

This is just a flavour of some of the issues we’re working on at a European level. If you want to find out more, there’s plenty of detail on our Public Policy pages. We’ll be blogging more in future about European issues so why not subscribe to the blog by putting your email address in the box in the right hand column, or use the orange RSS button.


Layla Theiner is Cancer Research UK’s European Public Affairs Manager