The EU’s cancer community: better with the UK?

Marc Beishon

Marc Beishon

Next week the people of the UK will vote on whether to remain in the European Union or leave it, a decision that could have far reaching implications for the future of the European ‘project’. In the UK, there has been increasingly bitter exchanges between the two camps about whether the country (or indeed the four constituent countries) will be better or worse off if there is a leave decision, and many misleading and often untrue financial figures have been put forward as ‘fact’.

While there has been little debate on what general shape the EU will be in following a UK exit, there has been some revealing discussion about some aspects of European-wide cooperation, notably research, and cancer research in particular. There has often been debate about how good Europe is at uniting cancer research to rival the powerhouse that is the US, and now some are arguing that the UK, as the leading biological research nation in Europe, may undermine progress if it were to leave the EU, and could also harm its own efforts to raise healthcare standards.

Writing in Lancet Oncology, five senior cancer and biomedical researchers, including Nobel laureate Paul Nurse, note that the UK has learnt about better care from other European countries, given it has lagged in outcomes for some time; has participated in more than 80% of cancer projects funded by the EU’s 7th framework programme; and generally, “the benefits of these collaborative European approaches so far have been major and can still increase, and are greatly facilitated by the EU”. But while much collaboration should continue, UK researchers may not be able to access EU funding, and free movement of cancer researchers between the UK and Europe could be halted.

Also in Lancet Oncology, Josep Tabernero and, Fortunato Ciardiello – the latter the current president of the European Society of Medical Oncology (ESMO) – argue that the broader aims of spreading research monies from the Horizon 2020 seven-year science programme, the biggest EU research programme in history, around Europe could be at risk from ‘Brexit’. They say too that the European Medicines Agency, currently based in London, would have to find a new home. “Post-exit uncertainty would inevitably affect European oncology research and care and would necessitate a lengthy period of adaptation as we grapple with the aftermath,” they say.

It is certainly also possible that EU institutes such as the Joint Research Centre, which carries out much work on areas such pan-European cancer information databases and the European Commission Initiative on Breast Cancer, could suffer.

But Angus Dalgleish, professor of oncology at St George’s University of London, has pointed out that the seven of the top nine universities are in the UK, which is unlikely to change, and European collaboration in science has been in place long before the post-Lisbon Treaty EU. “Examples abound, such as CERN, the European Molecular Biology laboratories, the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) and the European Space Agency,” he says. “It is a myth to think that if we left the EU we wouldn’t be part of these great collaborations, which already include many countries that are not in the EU, such as Switzerland, Norway and Israel.” (Note though that Dalgleish is also a member of the UK Independence Party.)

He would probably point too at Cancer Core Europe, the new group of elite cancer centres in Europe, including Cambridge, that is pushing ahead with large scale collaborative research.

And certainly there has been much frustration with the EU, in particular with the much criticised clinical trials directive of 2001. But that was reformed in 2014, and then just recently the European Parliament has adopted the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which ESMO describes as “crucial” for the future of cancer research as it includes one-time consent for retrospective research on clinical data and biological tissues, and aims to harmonise the different frameworks governing health research across the EU’s member states. Under the current Juncker commission in Brussels there is also a commitment to weed out unnecessary regulation.

If the UK does vote to leave, there will be several years of negotiation and perhaps the country will continue to participate in EU research programmes as before, and it will certainly have to conform to regulations such as the GDPR in international work that involves Europe.

But whichever way the vote goes, one positive result is that Europe’s cancer community has come under renewed focus from several angles – workforce, research and care – even if its value under the EU umbrella is contested.

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