Cancer charity calls for significant investment to diagnose disease earlier

By Nina Massey, PA Science Correspondent
·3-min read

Earlier detection of cancer is the single biggest opportunity to save lives from the disease, but there are many challenges in making this a reality for patients in the NHS, a report from Cancer Research UK suggests.

The charity’s Roadmap for the Early Detection and Diagnosis of Cancer report calls for significant investment in diagnostic equipment and technologies, along with NHS staff.

It argues this will support new ways of working and drive the shift to diagnose more cancers at an earlier stage, and ultimately save lives.

Cancer Research UK says its consultation of more than 100 experts reveals the “siloed” early detection research and development ecosystem, from academia and industry to the health services and policy makers, which is hampering progress.

It makes a series of recommendations to unite these sectors, address the challenges, and deliver a future where early detection of cancer is a routine reality.

Writing in the report’s foreword, England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty said: “Due to Covid-19 we are now in a particularly difficult time for health services and research.

“Many in the early detection and diagnosis ecosystem have undoubtedly been affected significantly.

“Reacting to the pandemic is important but so too are many other health priorities; these have not gone away.

“One of these is cancer early detection and diagnosis and its potential for the UK and globally.

“We should not allow Covid-19 to stop the progress that was being made and the ambition to go further.

“Earlier diagnosis of cancer can be transformative of people’s lives, and we need to continue to undertake the planning and research to achieve it.”

The report argues that by having the right investments and policies in place, the UK has the potential to become a world leader in early detection and diagnosis of cancer.

It adds that there has been a market failure in early detection of cancer, with too few innovative technologies making it into the health system.

The report suggests that long timelines and high cost of research and development, alongside unclear regulation and the low price point of diagnostics in the NHS, have resulted in underinvestment in the sector.

Dr David Crosby, head of prevention and early detection research at Cancer Research UK and co-author of the Roadmap, said: “All too often, patients are being diagnosed at a late stage, where their cancer is deeply rooted and requires significant intervention, often with poor outcomes.

“This is a human tragedy, not just in terms of lives lost, but it also means more hospital stays and monitoring, as well as expensive treatments.

“If we can turn this on its head and find cancer at its earliest stages when it’s easier to treat, not only will we be able to save lives on a vast scale, but we will be saving our NHS millions of pounds that would otherwise be needed for costly late stage treatments.

“For the first time, the Roadmap shows us how we can bring together the entire research, commercial and health ecosystem to create a future where lives are not needlessly lost due to late diagnosis.”

A Government spokeswoman said: “In September 2019 we announced funding of £200 million for new state of the art equipment to drive earlier diagnosis of cancer and improve survival rates, with many scanners already installed or in use across the NHS.

“NHS England is also rolling out Rapid Diagnostic Centres to bring together the latest diagnostic equipment and expertise, to provide people with the care they need faster.

“Cancer diagnosis and treatment has remained a priority throughout the pandemic and our message is clear – anyone who is concerned or needs treatment should come forward.”