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Andrew Selous MP: We should do more to tackle the biggest-killing cancer among the under 40s – brain tumours

Selous AndrewAndrew 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 cancer.

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 of treatment.

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.


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