Campaigning for cancer research

By Ellen Harries 13 March 2013

Brain tumours are devastating—they kill both men and women in their prime of life, and account for a large proportion of childhood cancer deaths. Survival rates are low. Brain tumours shorten people’s lives more than any other type of cancer. In the past ten years, there has been a 16% increase in deaths from brain tumours.

Yet the spend on research into brain tumours is relatively low, at less than 1% of the 10-year cumulative national cancer research spending in the UK.

NPC recently carried out some research for Brain Tumour Research, a charity that funds medical research, to explore the amount of funding that different cancers receive. Last night, we attended a parliamentary launch to present the findings to a group of MPs, charities and academics.

Our analysis reveals the uneven playing field that Brain Tumour Research feared. Mortality data from the Office of National Statistics shows that people with brain tumours have an incredibly low survival rate, with just 18.8% of those diagnosed between 2006 and 2010 alive in 2011. Our findings reflect what Cambridge academics found in a 2005 study: more average years of life are lost to brain tumours than any other cancer (Burnet et al 2005). On average a person diagnosed with a malignant brain tumour dies 20.1 years earlier than they should, whereas the average for all cancers is 12.5 years earlier. Clearly brain tumours are devastating and have a huge impact on those who are diagnosed and their families.

But despite brain tumours shortening people’s lives on average more than any other cancer in England, brain tumour research receives little funding. According to the NCRI database, which collates information on cancer research spend from UK research councils, government departments and charities, just 3.2% of site-specific research funding went to researching brain tumours in 2011. For comparison, breast cancer received 18.8% of site-specific research funding in 2011; Leukaemia 14.7%.

So why the disparity in funding? Partly because, although devastating, brain tumours appear to be relatively rare on basic incidence data. This may account for low government interest.  In 2010 the incidence of brain tumours was 13.27 per 100,000 in England, compared to 124.49 per 100,000 for breast cancer. But we some of this is a classification issue: in incidence data is selective and excludes secondary brain tumours (horrible), and some categories of tumour that appear benign but aren’t really. Professor Geoff Pilkington, president of the British Neuro-Oncological Society, has strong views on this and would like a broader incidence calculation.

Brain tumours are also incredibly complex, more so than many other cancers—and there are over 120 different types. Professor Pilkington explains that brain tumours are cellularly heterogeneous: unlike many other cancers, brain tumours are made up of many different types of cells and these respond differently to different treatments. This makes curing brain tumours particularly difficult—if 98% of a tumour responds to treatment, but 2% does not, a patient is still left with a potentially fatal cancer.

NPC’s data analysis reveals some fascinating and shocking statistics. Although relatively rare, brain tumours are devastating—if we look at mortality rates, brain tumours are the most dangerous form of cancer to develop. Brain Tumour Research campaigns to raise funds to pay for research into brain tumours, and we hope our research provides the charity with a compelling case to call for more funding to develop treatments for this complex disease.