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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:56 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Derek Thomas Derek Thomas Conservative, St Ives 4:56 pm, 7th December 2020

I commend Tonia Antoniazzi for opening this debate, and I also commend Fiona Govan for her incredible work to secure the signatures needed to trigger this debate. I know that Fiona would say that it is the least she could do following the loss of her grandson, but she, along with many other families suffering the same trauma, expect us to do something. The Minister understands that, as I know her to be a caring and compassionate individual.

In Fiona’s case, as we have heard, her grandson Logan died of a DIPG, which is a childhood cancer that wipes out hope and brings to an end a life of promise and potential. DIPGs, as we have heard, are tumours that are highly aggressive and difficult to treat, found at the base of the brain. But Fiona and her family are not alone; we all have families in our constituencies who have lost children to brain cancers.

I have the great honour of chairing the all-party parliamentary group on brain tumours. The charity that supports this influential APPG was born out of the loss of a girl following a diagnosis of DIPG. I cannot pretend to know what a family goes through when they are told such terrible news, but I can share a little in the pain, having lost a son at just nine months old. An account of Fiona’s family’s story can be found on the Brain Tumour Research website, and it is really powerful reading, for those who have not read it already. It sets out precisely the journey, and the trials and the challenges, that they had to go through, as their son and grandson lost his life.

When a family is told that their child has a DIPG, they do not have to search far to learn that just 10% of children diagnosed with this type of brain tumour survive for up to two years following a diagnosis, and that only 2% survive for as long as five years, and we know that few of these children, if any, survive at all for longer than that. As we have heard, this prognosis has not improved.

The work of the APPG is extensive, but what is particularly relevant to this debate is a recent meeting with Midatech. Midatech is a British-based company, which in October announced

“‘encouraging’ headline results from a phase 1 study at the University of California… in patients with… (DIPG)”.

We were told that in a cohort of seven children with DIPG who took part in a clinical trial whereby a drug is delivered directly to the brain via a catheter, five survived beyond 12 months and three continue to be monitored.

As always, it is important that we carefully manage the expectations of families with very sick young ones. However, the purpose of this debate is not to present the problem, which is well documented, but to seek to identify what will unlock the solution. We are aware of 200 failed drug trials relating to DIPG. There are very few promising signs, which is where I turn to the Minister. Will she investigate why a British company is limited to running clinical trials in the US—in the case of Midatech, in California and New York? Will she work with the National Institute for Health Research to find a way of committing and ring-fencing funds directly for research into childhood cancers, as the petition demands? Will she work with the APPG and Midatech to navigate a way to set up clinical trials in the UK? It seems that the only option for many parents is to travel across the world, at enormous personal expense. I associate myself with the recommendations of my hon. Friend Steve Brine, his work on the strategy and the need for absolute focus.

The APPG has been told repeatedly there is a lack of research and clinical trials in the area of brain cancer. That can only be properly addressed if we build the skills and expertise base, but that is very hard if the Government are not proactively promoting and funding such research. We start at a low base, but with the right focus, as we have all heard, there is an opportunity to provide the hope that these families so desperately need.