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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:43 pm on 7th December 2020.

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Photo of Jo Churchill Jo Churchill The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 5:43 pm, 7th December 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell.

I want to begin by congratulating the petitioners, as other Members have, and by thanking Tonia Antoniazzi for securing this important debate. It has been one of the most poignant I have attended—I am sure we can all agree about that—and it is my fourth debate about cancer in the past five days. Each one shows the devastation that that disease brings to families, but that has been particularly so today, because we have been speaking of children. As Patricia Gibson said, there is no way to feel, in burying a child or grandchild, that that is the right order of things.

I agree entirely with those Members who said that we are stronger when we act together—particularly in the world of cancer. That brought me to this place, and I hope to do a little good while I am here, in this sphere in particular. I want to add my voice to the chorus of tributes to Fiona Govan, who, as we have heard, started the petition after the death of a much-loved grandson, Logan.

As many Members have expressed, DIPG is a brutal cancer—we are seeing success with some cancers, but DIPG is particularly difficult. Fiona has vowed to do everything she can so that future generations will never have to experience the pain of losing a child, as her family did. As we have heard today, however, Eva, Izzy, Atticus, Cameron, Daniel, Isla, Bradley, Georgia, Kaleigh, Benny, Grace, Reece, Evie and Ollie have all been treasured and lost. It is to their families that I address my remarks. Nearly 110,000 people stand in solidarity with Fiona, and I am grateful to the Petitions Committee for its important work.

I am honoured to speak about this most important of petitions on behalf of the Government this afternoon. My heart goes out to all families affected. The pain of the diagnosis of DIPG and the subsequent treatment is something that no mother, father or grandparent should ever have to go through. The very thought of it in the 21st century is unbearable, yet Fiona’s experience and others’ experiences, which we have heard about through the many powerful and compelling contributions to the debate, remind us too painfully that although we have come a long way—there have been improvements over the past 40 years—we have not come far enough, particularly with DIPG. The dial has not shifted.

In the past 40 years, we have seen good progress in the treatment of childhood cancers. Thankfully, the majority of children will now survive cancer. However, the most pernicious cancers, such as DIPG, remain a deadly threat. Our research must continue, and I agree with hon. Members that it must intensify. The National Institute for Health Research is the largest national clinical research funder in Europe. As has been said, we have invested over £1 billion so that some of the finest researchers in the world can work on this puzzle and try to find the answer. The largest of the disease areas is cancer, and such research receives over £130 million each year.

Many tributes have been paid, and I want to pay tribute to my predecessor, my hon. Friend Steve Brine, for the work he did in this space, particularly with the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission in 2018. The Government have announced £40 million of funding over the five years, including for DIPG. The money is being invested through NIHR, making full use of its talents as an internationally recognised centre of research excellence. At the heart of the mission is translating the discoveries of scientists and doctors into treatments and diagnostics that can transform the lives of all young patients.

We know that research takes time. It is through heart-breaking experience that brain tumours give us one of the most persistent challenges, even for the greatest medical minds in this country and across the globe. We want researchers to submit high-quality research proposals in this area. In 2018, we made an appeal to the research community for more funding applications for brain tumours. The response was fantastic, with an immediate increase in proposals, and we have been able to fund the very best of them. As Alex Norris alluded to, £5.7 million has been spent so far, but we need to make that appeal loudly and clearly so that the research proposals that come forward can be assessed.

One of the challenges of ring-fencing just for DIPG is about the scientific potential of the research and what we are looking at. When we ring-fence funding, sometimes it actually stops great research. Although I want to go full pelt behind intensification—I want more proposals to come forward—the challenge of ring-fencing is a difficult one.

Research has been a major part of covid, as many hon. Members have said. We have shown that we can do more, that we can speed up research, that we can do things in parallel, and that we can deliver speedily from the bench to the bed to the patient. We need to take every one of the lessons that we have learned from the pandemic and translate them, particularly into cancer research.

We know well that cancer in children presents unique challenges. The Royal Marsden’s biomedical research centre is a world-leading centre for children with cancer that does genuinely groundbreaking research, such as the work to develop a 91-gene panel test that can detect certain genomic mutations in childhood tumours. The study used next-generation sequencing and involved children whose tumours were no longer responding to treatment; we have heard about the limited treatment options available to parents.

The study found that 51% of tumours had mutations that could be targeted by anti-cancer drugs that are used for different tumours in adults—51% is really encouraging. That is the challenge of ring-fencing funding in a different area, however: we need to look at how we can use different treatments to target other cancers, as we are seeing more and more. We need to make the most of that. For example, drugs that are ordinarily used to treat skin cancer in an adult might be effective in treating a child’s brain tumour. That could clearly be a game changer.

The Royal Marsden is also a leader in DIPG research. As we know, DIPG is difficult to treat because it is comprised of multiple generations of different types of cancer cell. The biomedical research centre’s pioneering work has used genetic sequencing of individual cell types to explore how they interact, co-operate and stimulate the growth of that tumour. That opens up new avenues for the interpretation of tumour evolution and opportunities for new drug interventions. All that groundbreaking work is transforming how we think about childhood cancers, with powerful technologies that offer hope for future generations. What unites us all is that we never want to see parents go through that pain if we can work towards a solution to stop it. We are determined that the biomedical research centre at the Royal Marsden should remain a home for groundbreaking research. Since 2017, we have provided £43 million over five years.

The University of Nottingham is another such centre of excellence and the National Institute for Health Research is funding research there to look at the early diagnosis of childhood cancers. Early diagnosis is crucial across all cancer types. We know that we get much better outcomes when we diagnose in stages 1 and 2, rather than being presented with stages 3 or 4 when, obviously, the prognosis is much poorer. This represents a potential pathway that might avoid the painful journey that lies ahead.

In Nottingham, researchers are looking at cancer symptoms that are often non-specific and can mimic other more common childhood illnesses. We heard from many hon. Members how an initial tremor in the hand, a dragging of the leg or feeling unwell would perhaps not immediately be thought of as cancer in a child. Doctors do their best, but parents do not want every visit to the doctor to be a worry that their child has cancer. It is very difficult for those who diagnose. The research in Nottingham aims to address that challenge by increasing awareness of symptoms among healthcare professionals and addressing the lack of paediatric-specific diagnostic tools.

I say in answer to several hon. Members that the Department is working with charities large and small, such as Cancer Research UK and other medical charities, and Cancer52 and the smaller charities, as well as with many research bodies, including the Medical Research Council and others. Only by co-ordinating funding can National Cancer Research Institute partners maximise the impact of research for patients and the public. I pay tribute to those centres of excellence, but this journey is not theirs alone. We are seeing an ever more powerful network of partnerships and likeminded organisations that care passionately about brain tumours. In addition to the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission, we work with Cancer Research UK and many others. For example, in partnership with CRUK, the NIHR has funded £1.2 million for an experimental cancer medicine centre and a paediatric network, which brings together triallists, scientists, clinicians and NHS research infrastructure to increase availability and access to novel treatments. Several Members spoke of the challenge of having to go abroad to America or Europe to access those treatments. We want people to be able to take part in trials and access treatments here.

The Brain Tumour Charity does incredible work and provides £2.8 million of funding for the study of more targeted brain tumour drugs. The fantastic Tessa Jowell BRAIN MATRIX is pioneering a new trials platform to give people with brain cancer, including children, access to trials and treatments that are best suited to individual tumours. There are many hundreds, if not thousands, of different cancers. The Tessa Jowell BRAIN MATRIX is working across the four nations, and across the globe. Nobody has the sole right to make the discovery. Working together, we are much stronger. We are all here to make sure we deliver for young patients.

I pay tribute to the incredible partners across the country for the effort that is going into this generational challenge. I also pay tribute to the charities for their additional work in supporting families. When a person gets a cancer diagnosis, that is a horrendous journey. It is awful as an adult, but worse when it is someone’s child—my heart goes out to all those parents.

No child should have to suffer in the way the children we have heard about today did and do, and no adult should have to bear such a loss. Fiona and everyone else who has lost a very loved child or grandchild before their time have my deepest sympathy and respect. As we have heard, that is often not enough, so they have my absolute commitment that the Government will stop at nothing to make childhood cancer a thing of the past for generations to come.

We will look at getting better data. Transparency can be a challenge, because it is obviously important that we do not divulge too much about an individual patient. I have talked about the challenge with ring-fencing, but that does not mean that we should not be spending the money and calling for more research. We will also incentivise research, and I am happy to carry on the conversation about a UK strategy.

We will stop at nothing to make childhood cancer a thing of the past for generations to come. We will achieve that only through research, and we will do it better together.