Childhood Cancers: Research — [David Mundell in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:48 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester 4:48 pm, 7th December 2020

It was the privilege of my life to hold the role of cancer Minister in the previous Government. Through that work, I learned of the battles of DIPG patients and the all-too-tragic outcomes.

As ever, it is the personal stories that connect. I wish I could show Members the pictures, but I have the words of Emily, the mum of Atticus—a fantastic name:

“In June 2018 our happy, charming, caring 4 year old son started to exhibit very mild symptoms which gave us cause for concern. Slight issues with balance, difficulty concentrating and mild drooling. Nothing significant but… you know when your child is not ‘right’… Atticus went… for a CT scan and was the referred to Southampton General for an MRI. On 1 July 2018, 2 years ago, my husband and I were guided into a small room to be given the results. I will never forget that moment. The neurologist told us that… he had a likely survival time of 9-12 months. In one breath our whole world came crashing down and we began to grieve—even though Atticus was still with us… On 7 February Atticus fell asleep forever in the bed next to me. I’ll never, ever forget watching my child pass away. It is the most unnatural, unjust and devastating experience any parent can suffer.”

Emily wrote to me again the other day:

“As we face the second Christmas without our beautiful boy, we can take some comfort in the prospect of increased funding and research to help eradicate this terrible cancer. It is all we can hope for.”

I guess the question is whether we—and whether they—have hope. As has been said, a child diagnosed with DIPG today faces the same prognosis as a child diagnosed over 50 years ago. Survivable rates are near zero for this particular cancer.

It is true, as the Government said in their response to this petition, and as the Minister will almost certainly say today, that

“we have invested £1bn per year in health research through the National Institute for Health Research”.

Expenditure in this area is the largest it has ever been. I remember working with the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission. It was a privilege to work with Tessa and her daughter Jess, who were very forceful ladies and very good at lobbying Ministers, including me. We were able to promise an extra £40 million over five years for brain tumour research as part of the mission’s work. That included funding for childhood cancers.

One key point of their work was to stimulate the research market in this area, to see new research propositions come forward. Tessa understood that acutely. It is never the case that we have enough money for health research. I suggest that we need both investment and strategy. That is why I was struck by this particular recommendation in the campaign that led to this petition, which Tonia Antoniazzi touched on.

The UK does have excellent collaborative research at our medical facilities, but we must assign sufficient funding to DIPG research and implementation of the new treatments. I urge the Government to convene and appoint special UK experts directly to centralise efforts and bring forward that new prioritisation strategy, so that we can stimulate the research market, as Tessa and her campaign urged me to do when I was sitting in the Minister’s position.

The Minister cannot wave a magic wand and make this go away—I have sat in her place enough times to know that. However, we can agree to make this change and to work together to finally face DIPG and start to turn the corner, with the collaborative strategy that I have mentioned. That is the hope—to reiterate that word—that these families want. I do not think that is too much to ask.