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20 Mar 2003 : Column 1182—continued

6.17 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. David Lammy): I congratulate the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Mr. Norman) on securing the debate. The future of the haematology unit at Pembury hospital and its research is clearly of importance not only to him and his constituents, but to many people in the UK.

This country has an outstanding record of scientific innovation. In health terms, that rests on mutual support among the NHS, our universities and the bodies that fund high quality research and development. As well as providing solid support for the national science effort, the NHS must support research and development that is relevant to its national priorities and responsive and accessible to the needs of those who use the NHS, as well as its staff and decision makers. We must take an integrated approach to securing the knowledge that we need if we are to tackle health inequalities and provide modern health and social care.

It is estimated that more than £450 million is spent on cancer research in the UK every year. Cancer research funding is made up of several components, including the direct spend on research programmes, infrastructure, support services and laboratories. The first of these, direct support for research, is of most value for co-ordination and strategy setting. The largest proportion of the total expenditure is in the field of biological research, although research into aetiology and treatment is also well supported. The research is funded by approximately 250 charities, numerous Government bodies and the pharmaceutical industry. It is supported by the National Cancer Research Institute, a partnership between the major funding bodies that has the objective of accelerating progress in research in the UK for the benefit of patients.

By 2004, a new cancer research network will be fully implemented. That will enhance the quality, speed and co-ordination of clinical research and ensure better integration with cancer care. More than 31 of the 34

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cancer service networks are now receiving research funds for an integral national cancer research network. Phase 2 of the cancer services collaborative programme commenced in April 2001. The national programme focuses on prostate, breast, lung and ovarian cancers in all 34 cancer networks. There is a total of more than 600 projects, which have yielded in excess of 1,500 real improvements in cancer services for patients. That confirms a healthy picture of a varied and generally well-balanced cancer research base in the UK.

I come now to the specific funding issue that the hon. Gentleman raised. The haematology research unit was set up in Pembury hospital in 1985. It is an independent research unit that carries out research into drug resistance before therapy in the field of chemosensitivity for bladder, breast, acute leukaemia and ovarian cancers, and it has some notable achievements to its credit. I am very happy to pay tribute to that work. Traditionally, it has taken samples from patients from a number of hospitals across south England, testing about 300 samples every year. More recently, its facility has been used some of London's teaching hospitals and more local centres such as the Ashford breast cancer centre.

During its 17 or so years, the unit has had many papers published and the results have been used to help cancer sufferers all over the world. Historically, the unit has received its funding through various routes. Trusts pay for the testing services, but those funds are not sufficient to meet the large operational costs of the unit. Additional funding comes from the haematology research fund, which is supported by the host trust's general charitable trust fund, together with, as the hon. Gentleman said, a research grant from the Medical Research Council. The trust provided accommodation free of charge to the unit at the Pembury site.

I recognise the efforts that have been made by the unit and local people to try to raise funds in support of the unit—they have done so very successfully for many years—but even their efforts have not been enough to secure the continued long-term operation of the unit. I understand and have every sympathy with the position that the unit now finds itself in.

The hon. Gentleman acknowledges that it is rather late in the day to take action, and in a sense the position is clear. Funding decisions in the NHS now rest with primary care trusts. It is for PCTs, in conjunction with their strategic health authorities, to plan and develop services according to the needs of their local communities. Unfortunately, it is not appropriate for Ministers to get involved in those decisions. This is an independent research unit with charitable status. The NHS has supported it over many years by providing free rent and employment contracts for its staff. The NHS—specifically the West Kent and the Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS trusts—is involved in a number of clinical trials involving cancer patients. The Kent and Medway strategic health authority continues to encourage research and development across Kent through its research and development and other networks. But, again, it is for the local research and development network to make decisions on a research and development strategy to increase research opportunities in Kent.

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The hon. Gentleman, as he indicated, may ask, why do we not tell the Medical Research Council to continue funding the unit? The reason is that the MRC is an independent body that receives its grant in aid from the Office of Science and Technology. It is a long-standing and important principle of successive Governments that they do not prescribe the detail of how individual research councils should distribute their resources between competing priorities.

Mr. Norman: Does the Minister accept that it is clearly not for the primary care trust to fund a unit that provides research of a long-term nature that is of value to the whole country, not just the PCT area? I am sure that he will agree that it is not sensible to ask the PCT, which is already strapped for funds, to fund research of that kind. There must be another apparatus for doing that. Does he accept that the nature of the unit, as I said earlier, is to provide a service to the NHS that is of value today? It cannot be regarded as just a normal piece of research. No one is suggesting that the Government should tell research agencies to make grants, but this is an emergency. Something must be done or the resources will be lost forever.

Mr. Lammy: If I may, I would like to move on to the nature of the research and what is going on across the country. Right across the country, in individual primary care trusts and strategic health authority areas, much work is going on in the locality that is of tremendous national benefit. It is right that such decisions are made in conjunction with the primary care trust and the strategic health authority.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that, should the Pembury unit close, every effort should be made to ensure that the work that it undertakes should not be lost to the wider NHS. Two other established units, in Bath and Portsmouth, carry out similar research into chemosensitivity testing. I am advised by officials that discussions are about to take place to determine whether samples tested at Pembury can be managed at those sites. In addition, the Royal London hospital has confirmed that it is able to take on the work that the unit does specifically in the area of chemosensitivity testing for childhood leukaemia. As he will know, those tests form a crucial part of the unit's most recent work on relapsed leukaemia trials, on which other laboratories across the UK are also working.

In addition, I understand that scientists from St. Bartholomew's hospital, London, have spent time with the unit in Pembury learning the techniques that it uses. As I have said, the unit at Pembury has historically taken samples from hospitals across the south of England. Although I can understand the hon. Gentleman's disappointment that this type of research may not continue at the haematology research unit in Pembury, I can assure him that discussions are under way to transfer the unit's testing of samples to other sites in the south of England, and that some specialist work will transfer to the Royal London. As I understand it, samples are sent through the post, so distance is not an issue as long as the samples are received within 24 hours.

For the longer term, I understand that new types of research are being developed that could replace chemosensitivity in the future. Many labs throughout the UK are currently working on gene expression

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profiling. GEP is very similar to chemosensitivity, in that the labs take fresh samples of cancer cells from patients and profile them against different drugs. Eventually, it should be possible to match up about 30,000 different types of cancer genes with the most appropriate drug therapy.

To turn back to the hon. Gentleman's area, a research and development network has been established in Kent and Medway, which brings together primary care,

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secondary care and universities to work on a research and development strategy to increase research opportunities. I understand that Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells NHS trust is already taking part in several clinical trials involving cancer patients—

The motion having been made after Six o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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