Peter Johnson

Last week, the UK Government triggered Article 50, the official commitment to the UK leaving the European Union (EU) following the referendum. This marks the start of the negotiation process between the UK and EU on the terms of withdrawal.

Since the UK public’s vote in favour of leaving the EU in June last year, we’ve been identifying the possible implications and opportunities that a new relationship with the EU could present for medical research and cancer patients.

Below, our chief clinician, Professor Peter Johnson, shares some of the key areas we’ve been highlighting in our meetings with representatives in Westminster and Brussels and in our responses to parliamentary committee inquiries that have opened in recent months. And we’ll continue to focus on these issues now that the formal process to leave the EU has begun.

The right people for the job

Every day I work with talented researchers who are tackling cancer. Researchers working in hospitals and labs across the country are at the heart of the discoveries that will benefit cancer patients in the UK, in Europe and worldwide. It’s the mix of UK, EU and international expertise working together which makes UK science great.

4 in 10 Cancer Research UK fellows are from the EU, as are one third of our PhD students.

Cancer Research UK believes it’s crucial to attract and retain those people no matter where they’re from. This is so that patients can get the best, innovative treatments and benefit from key scientific collaborations at home and internationally.

Supporting the science environment

Cancer Research UK receives no direct government funding for its research. But broader investment in science and research by the UK Government and by the EU provides the backbone of support for our researchers to carry out their life-saving work.

Between 2011 and 2015, Cancer Research UK-funded researchers received more than £45m in further funding from the European Commission following their Cancer Research UK award.

Continued support for science from the UK Government is important to make sure our researchers’ excellent work continues and can grow. And, for patients, that investment is vital as we push to see 3 in 4 people survive cancer by 2034.

That’s why I welcome the Prime Minister’s commitment to an ambitious Industrial Strategy for the UK, something the Government has called a “critical part” of the plan for post-Brexit Britain. We believe this provides an excellent opportunity to put patient-focused science at the heart of plans for the country’s growth.

In response to the Government’s call for views on its Industrial Strategy Green Paper, we’ll be submitting our ideas as to how best we think we can support the life sciences’ sector in the UK.

One of these suggestions is enhancing government support for charity investment in medical research through an increase in the Charity Research Support Fund (CRSF). This fund supports overhead costs such as general lab maintenance for scientists, which aren’t covered by charities as they fund the research itself through generous donations from supporters. An increase in the fund is needed to provide long-term confidence for universities seeking charity investment.

Looking to Brussels, the UK benefits from EU funding programmes both through the money they provide and – more importantly – through the support they bring for important collaborations between doctors and scientists. And that’s why it’s also vital that everyone sitting around the negotiating table in Brussels considers the value the UK continues to offer to support science in the EU.

Accessing drugs and taking part in trials

There are common EU rules applied in the UK which govern how research is carried out and how drugs are approved. These rules are really important for patient safety and to make sure that people in the UK and the EU can benefit from the latest treatments available. They support a lot of research that is already happening across the EU, providing consistency that isn’t replicated between other countries in the same way around the world.

The UK has played a key role in the new EU Clinical Trials Regulation, which comes into force next year. It’s an important law that will benefit patients, improving how clinical trials are run across the EU with the highest standards of patient safety.

In cancer, cross-border trials are especially important for rare and children’s cancers where the numbers of people affected are small. For progress to continue in these challenging areas, it’s vital that UK patients keep taking part in cross-border research.

1 in 3 Cancer Research UK-supported clinical trials have involvement from countries outside the UK.

To allow me and many other doctors and researchers to continue to collaborate with partners across the EU, the UK Government needs to consider how rules supporting research, like the Clinical Trials Regulation, will be recognised legally by the EU and vice versa when the UK leaves.

The UK Government should also consider how the UK’s rules could inspire further global collaboration, increasing Britain’s appeal as a place to launch innovative treatments for patients. This could be supported by ensuring the NHS is the best place to carry out clinical research.

What happens next?

As the formal negotiation process begins, Cancer Research UK will be continuing its work to ensure patients and research are on the agenda when it comes to the UK’s new relationship with the EU. And we’ll be talking to government, both in Westminster and Brussels, where opportunities arise.

Our priorities on people, investment and regulation are common themes that have been recognised across the science sector. And we’ll be working closely with other partners to make sure our voice is heard on these important issues.

Ultimately, we want to ensure patients get the best deal as we look to establish a new relationship with the EU.

Professor Peter Johnson, chief clinician, Cancer Research UK

  • You can read more about Cancer Research UK’s work on Brexit on our website.