Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Medical Research Council

THE RESEARCH BASE

  The MRC has continued to invest significant new funding in cancer research since the report was published in July 2000. Notable recent awards made by the Council include a new Unit, a Centre Development Grant, two Trial Grants, two Programme Grants etc.

  1.  The new MRC Cell Biology Unit (UCL) aims to understand the molecular basis of cell behaviour. The work is in three broad areas: the cell cytoskeleton, protein trafficking and receptor signalling, and proliferation/differentiation, aspects of which are relevant to cancer. Our earlier evidence to the Committee mentioned the MRC Cancer Cell Unit located in a new building on the Addenbrooke's site in Cambridge. This Unit was opened in April. Its aim is to accelerate translation of basic laboratory research into the clinic. The initial focus is on developing new reagents for diagnosis of cervical, colorectal, prostate and lung cancer.

  2.  A grant to the University of Sussex is supporting the development of a new Genome Stability and Damage Centre. This will focus on fundamental biological mechanisms whereby cells respond to genotoxic and environmental insults, and which can lead to cancer.

  3.  Funding for new cancer trials includes grants for the Myeloma IX trial that will evaluate several approaches to therapy (based in Leeds) and a treatment trial for advanced ovarian cancer (based in Guy's Hospital, London).

  4.  New Programme Grants support research on cell proliferation (Glasgow) and on gene therapy and bioreductive drug approaches (Manchester).

  5.  As part of an £8.5 million investment in large DNA collections from well-characterised case-controlled cohort studies, the MRC has funded collections in colorectal cancer (Edinburgh), leukaemia (UCL) and breast cancer (GKT, London).

  The Select Committee report commented on skills shortages in key research areas such as bioinformatics. MRC launched a package of research training awards in bioinformatics in 1998, and the Council continues to offer additional studentships and fellowships to help build a skilled workforce in this field. In addition, MRC is allocating £5 million of the additional funding received under the 2000 Spending Review towards a call for proposals in bioinformatics focused on two topics: cancer, and brain science.

THE CANCER RESEARCH FUNDERS' FORUM

  The Cancer Research Funders Forum (CRFF) was established following the Prime Minister's Cancer Summit in May 1999. Membership included the major UK research funders: DH, MRC, ICRF, CRC, LRF, the Ludwig Institute and Marie Curie Cancer Care. The CRFF partnership was very successful and played a key role in developing the NCRI (below).

  Activities of the CRFF included reviewing the state of UK MRC prostate cancer research, which MRC managed on behalf of the Forum. This review recommended that the critical mass of research in prostate cancer should be built up, initially by setting up one or more centres of excellence. To facilitate this, two "Prostate Cancer Research Collaboratives" have been established with funding from the ICRF, CRC, MRC and DH (a consortium led by Professor David Neal at Newcastle University, and a consortium led by Professor Colin Cooper from the Institute of Cancer Research, London). As well as conducting research on prostate cancer the collaboratives will encourage networking and provide pump-priming support for new projects.

  The Forum also oversaw the establishment of the National Generic Tumour Bank to draw together tumour sample collections in key sites, and underpin studies addressing the molecular basis of cancer. Funds for the bank came from MRC, ICRF, CRC and DH: the bank will be hosted by Glasgow University.

  The Forum developed plans for the establishment of the National Cancer Research Network (NCRN). The Network is funded by DH and co-ordinated by a consortium involving the Universities of York and Leeds and the MRC Clinical Trials Unit. The aim is to provide a world class base for the conduct of clinical trials and other research, doubling the number of cancer patients recruited to trials and enhancing the quality, speed and co-ordination of clinical research. The NCRN will map onto the cancer service networks across the country thus achieving better integration between research and cancer care.

  A National Translational Cancer Research Network has also been established. It has two objectives: 1) co-ordinating NHS infrastructural support for Phase 1 and early Phase II trials; 2) leading the NHS' contribution to early studies translating basic research into promising new treatments.

THE NATIONAL CANCER RESEARCH INSTITUTE (NCRI)

  The NCRI evolved from the CRFF, drawing on a broader range of cancer research funders and industry. Its purpose is to accelerate the advancement of cancer research in the UK, by facilitating a more co-ordinated approach to developing and implementing an effective research strategy for cancer. NCRI keeps a strategic oversight of cancer research in the UK, identifying gaps in current research and opportunities; plans and co-ordinates approaches between funding bodies to fill gaps and take up opportunities; and monitors progress in implementing plans and achieving objectives. MRC plays an active role in the NCRI: the NCRI Board is chaired by the Chief Executive of MRC and the Secretariat is hosted by the Council.

  Achievements in the short time since its inception include the following.

  1.  The NCRI has, in discussion with funding agencies, proposed a joint approach to the establishment of a national tumour sample collection—this was discussed at the NCRI Board meeting on 5 December and approved in principle. The approach will build upon the complementary work of the generic tumour bank, but provide samples, for example from clinical trials with high quality phenotypic information, that will underpin and accelerate work aimed at addressing the genetic basis of susceptibility to cancer, response to therapy, effectiveness of diagnostics etc. The bank should help link basic science to practical clinical application.

  2.  In March 2001 a significant two-day meeting was held between the NCRI and the US National Cancer Institute (NCI). The purpose of the meeting was to exchange information, share ideas, develop personal connections and explore ways in which the National Cancer Research Programmes of the US and UK can better interact. A formal liaison has been established to take forward work in three areas; Informatics, a common scientific outline for cancer research programmes (for research classification), and discussions concerning UK/US collaborations within centres for population health.

  In parallel to the work of NCRI, and in close co-operation with NCRI, MRC and CRC have developed a joint approach to the assessment of applications for cancer trials. This approach was announced at NCRI Board on 5 December. The aim is a single point of call for all cancer trialists, clarity on which agency takes forward which full trial application, and a faster track for peer review and feedback for most trials. Such an integrated system via a new committee—the Cancer Trials Advisory Committee (CTAC)—should assist the National Cancer Research Network (NCRN) in its aim of doubling the number of patients entering trials and improve the evidence base upon which to invite trial applications. The Committee will be managed by the new merged CRC/ICRF charity and MRC will provide funding for the Committee to allocate to trials. Very large trials including screening and prevention trials will continue to be reviewed through streamlined MRC channels.

CONCLUSION

  We hope the Committee will agree that significant progress has been made by MRC and funding partners in setting up the basis for a more co-ordinated approach to developing and implementing an effective research strategy for cancer.

5 December 2001


 
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