Andrew Selous is the Member of Parliament for South West Bedfordshire and is the new Chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Brain Tumours. Follow Andrew on Twitter.
In the long battle against
cancer, brain tumours are a rare exception to a story of general progress. They have
actually increased by a quarter in the last three decades. Thankfully, we are
now at a stage where only five per cent of breast cancer patients and seven per cent of prostate
cancer patients die within a year of diagnosis. But 58 per cent of brain tumour patients
die within a year.
Perhaps most tragically, brain
tumours are the leading cause of cancer deaths in children – and in adults
under 40. Almost
three quarters of brain tumour deaths occur in those under 75, whilst for cancer as a
whole it is less than half. Because they strike so young, each brain tumour
robs someone of an average of more than 20 years of life, more than any other
Even in the toughest fiscal environment, there is a
case for allocating a fairer proportion of existing funding into vital research
into the causes of, and treatment for, brain tumours. This is not government
making unaffordable commitments: the vast bulk of cancer research funding in
the UK comes from the charitable sector – but too little of it seems focused on
this major killer.
A report released this month by the charity Brain Tumour Research illustrates the scale of the
problem. The National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) tracks spending from the
largest charities and government. From 2002 to 2012, just 0.8 per cent of funding went
to brain tumour research. Last year, it fell to just £5 million – less than
one per cent of the total.
This means roughly £8000 was spent in 2012 on leukaemia research for
every death by leukaemia, compared to £1500 for brain tumour deaths. This is
in spite of the fact that brain tumour deaths in 2011 were only 16 per cent lower than those
dying of leukaemia.
This would not be such a problem if other cancer
research lent itself to a better understanding of brain tumours. But brain
tumours are very different from other cancers. The ‘blood-brain barrier’
protects the brain from toxins in the blood, but this can also hinder brain
tumour treatment. Treatments like chemotherapy run through the blood, and so
cannot be used for fighting brain tumours. There are over 120 types of brain
tumour, making research difficult. Unlike most cancers, brain tumours are also comprised
of lots of different types of cells, which react differently to different forms
However, there are steps that government can take. Brain
Tumour Research recommends in its report that in setting priorities for cancer
research funding, the government should prioritise deaths under 75. It should
ensure that a consistent level of funding is available for those who choose to work
in brain cancer research. Introducing a simple national register of cancer
research, and of which cancers are being studied, would also allow a broader
understanding of the funding picture and prevent duplication of work.
Individuals giving to charities also have the power
to direct their donations towards under-funded research. It is only through
giving directly to brain tumour charities, funding laboratory-based research, that
all types of brain tumours will be cured.