Lung cancer imageLung cancer is a big problem in the UK

November is lung cancer awareness month, so it’s time to focus on the work of researchers up and down the UK who are doing their best to beat the disease.

Lung cancer is one of the most common cancers in the UK, and it’s the cancer type responsible for the most deaths from the disease. That makes it a top priority for organisations like ours. But is the UK research community doing enough to tackle the disease?

It’s a question we’re often asked, so this month we’re delving into what ‘enough’ research really means, and how we’re helping to boost lung cancer research in the UK.

Is there enough lung cancer research in the UK?

Back in 2002, the National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI – a partnership of charities, government and industry that promotes co-operation in cancer research) carried out an analysis that revealed that lung cancer research in the UK was receiving far less funding than research into other cancers.

This was worrying, so the NCRI cast its eyes over the whole research community, and published a report in 2006 that identified the possible reasons for this problem and suggested ways to improve the situation.

One possibility was that research organisations just weren’t funding enough work into lung cancer. But, reassuringly, the report found no evidence that applications for lung cancer research are treated any less favourably than applications for research into other types of cancer.

So could it be that researchers just aren’t as keen to study lung cancer? Patients with lung cancer generally have very poor outcomes, and the NCRI report found that some scientists believe that the disease is difficult to study. For example, lung cancer tissue samples for research can be hard to obtain, and because the disease has a poor outlook many patients are not well enough to take part in clinical trials.

These poor outcomes have another important knock-on effect. Because there are relatively few lung cancer survivors, there are fewer patient advocates campaigning for more research compared with, say, breast cancer, where improving survival means there are thousands of women alive to lobby and raise funds. It’s as if lung cancer research is stuck in a vicious circle – one that we urgently need to break.

What is Cancer Research UK doing about it?

We’ve identified lung cancer as an important priority in our five-year research strategy, and we’re making extra efforts to tackle the disease.

You can read highlights of our lung cancer research on our website.

One important thing to mention is that we don’t have set amounts or proportions of funding that are allocated to different cancer types. We receive research proposals from scientists all over the UK, and we consult panels of experts to help us decide which projects should be funded. If we receive relatively few applications for lung cancer research, we won’t be able to fund as much research into this type of cancer. We’ve posted before on how we decide what research to fund.

In the past we’ve received fewer applications for research into lung cancer than for other cancers such as breast cancer. But on the other hand many of these lung cancer applications are high quality and so are more likely to be funded.

Are there enough clinical trials into lung cancer?

There are many ways to tackle lung cancer – from prevention and early detection to identifying people who have a higher risk of the disease. But one of the most obvious ways to beat the disease is to improve treatment, and clinical trials are the final step in this process. But are there enough clinical trials into lung cancer taking place in the UK?

It’s not easy to know what the ‘right’ number of clinical trials would be. Trials are one of the last stages of cancer research, and before any new treatment or procedure reaches this point, researchers will have spent many years developing it in the lab and in pre-clinical testing. So the number of trials depends on the number of promising treatments or procedures that come from earlier research.

Right now there are more than 700 cancer clinical trials taking place in the UK, and over 80 of these focus on lung cancer – that’s about 12 per cent of the total. But it’s important to judge trials on quality as well as quantity – just one very successful trial could have huge implications for future treatment.

For example, in the 1990s Cancer Research UK developed a new way of giving radiotherapy for lung cancer, called CHART. Trials showed that this approach can improve survival for patients with the most common type of the disease. You can read more examples of our progress against lung cancer on our website.

And we’re continuing to fund groundbreaking lung cancer trials – like the international CONVERT trial, which is finding the best way to treat patients with small cell lung cancer (SCLC). We’re also supporting FRAGMATIC, the largest lung cancer trial in the world, which is testing a new way of tackling the disease and the symptoms it causes.

Prevention: better than cure

Better research isn’t the only way to tackle lung cancer – we mustn’t forget that this is a disease that can largely be prevented. Smoking causes nine out of ten cases of lung cancer, and one of Cancer Research UK’s main aims is to help more people quit.

Our research and campaigning have already contributed to the significant drop in smoking rates over the past decade – more than a million people quit smoking between 2005 and 2008, and we want to see four million fewer adult smokers by 2020.

Our scientists are striving to find better ways to help people successfully quit smoking and to stop young people from taking up the habit. For example, a recent study from our Tobacco Control Research group in Scotland showed that packaging cigarettes in plain boxes reduces the appeal of smoking. Research like this has the potential to help save many thousands of lives in the future.

Improving research and saving lives

It’s clear that lung cancer research hasn’t always had enough support. The NCRI report concluded that researchers already studying lung cancer need better incentives to spend more of their time on it, and we need to attract new researchers to the field.

The NCRI has set up a ‘working party’ to raise the profile of lung cancer research, and Cancer Research UK is playing a key role in this effort. You can read more about this on the NCRI website.

But it’s not just about reaching scientists – the public and key decision makers should have lung cancer on their agendas too. In 2005 the UK Lung Cancer Coalition was launched to tackle this challenge. Its members – including doctors, charities such as Cancer Research UK, and healthcare companies – are raising awareness of lung cancer, especially among MPs.

And the figures show that all these efforts are paying off. Funding for lung cancer research in the UK has tripled from £3.5m in 2002 to over £11m in 2010, and earlier this year a report showed encouraging improvements in lung cancer treatment across the NHS.

This is great news, but we’ve got to keep building on this progress if we’re going to beat the disease. All our supporters are helping us in the fight every day, and we’re continuing to work alongside the other cancer research organisations in the UK to make sure lung cancer gets the attention it deserves.

Nell Barrie