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House of Lords mesothelioma debate: Why is funding for mesothelioma research so low?

21 December 2015

During a recent debate at the House of Lords, it was found that only £480 is being invested into mesothelioma research per death caused by mesothelioma, compared to more than £3,700 for skin cancer.

Lord Alton of Liverpool has brought forward a request for a second reading of the Mesothelioma (Amendment) Bill in the House of Lords.

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The debate lasted several hours, and a number of members of the House of Lords had their say on the serious topic, covering various important points, including research, affected veterans, and how it affects teachers and ex-students.

This will be the first of three articles which we will post which cover this debate. In this article, we will be reviewing what was said at the House of Lords debate about why there is not enough funding for current and future mesothelioma research.

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How much is being spent on mesothelioma research?

Throughout 2014, figures from the National Cancer Research Institute show that just £820,000 was invested into mesothelioma research. This number is significantly lower than the £9.9 million and £5.3 million spent respectively on the skin cancers melanoma and myeloma, which are two forms of skin cancer with a similar mortality rate.

According to Lord Alton, “Per death, £3,700 is invested for skin cancer, whereas for mesothelioma it is only £480.”

Where is the money for mesothelioma research coming from?

It has been found that only 4 out of 150 insurance companies had stepped up to contribute to a voluntary mesothelioma research funding scheme. This number quickly halved to just 2.

At the start of the debate, Lord Alton gave the following statement:

“When your Lordships debated the causes and absence of cures for mesothelioma during the passage of the Mesothelioma Act 2014, my proposal to provide a statutory levy on the insurance industry to fund research was defeated by a slender margin of seven votes – 199 to 192. When the same amendment was moved in the Commons, it was defeated by 266 to 226. Severable noble Lords and Members of another place agreed entirely with the principle of insurance industry funding for mesothelioma research but expressed a preference for contributions to be secured on a voluntary basis. In both Houses, Ministers gave assurances that a new voluntary research regime would be established. At that time, just four out of 150 insurance companies were voluntary contributors. Far from stepping up to the plate, that number has been reduced to just two.”

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What this means is, that out of 150 insurance companies who are able to contribute towards mesothelioma research, only 2 are doing so on a voluntary basis (down from 4 in recent years). Had Lord Alton’s proposal for a statutory levy on the insurance industry to fund research passed, long-term funding solutions would have been in place to see the responsibility shared more widely, rather than just on the backs of 2 voluntary insurance companies.

A small contribution from each of the insurance companies could transform mesothelioma research completely. It was revealed that the two insurance companies actually donating – Aviva and Zurich – were donating a combined £1 million over two years to the BLF’s mesothelioma research programme. “Although I commend Aviva and Zurich,” says Lord Alton, “£500,000 a year for just two years does not come close to addressing the multi-million pound funding deficit experienced by mesothelioma research. It does not deliver sustainable funding; it relies on the good will of two companies, which themselves complain that the load is not being fairly shared, and nor does it deliver the promise made to the House when we voted on a statutory provision. It is unfair and unrealistic to ask two firms to be responsible for 100% of the insurance industry’s contribution to mesothelioma research.”

What mesothelioma research opportunities are available?

If more funding for research into mesothelioma was made available, there would be several opportunities for further advancement in the field.

“[There are] possibilities that are opening up and the exciting chance to create a global ‘hub-and-spoke’ national mesothelioma research institute,” says Lord Alton. “The British Lung Foundation has been able to instigate research projects which have opened up extraordinary possibilities. By working with researchers in other areas of therapy, it has gained new expertise and insights. MesobanK, Europe’s first mesothelioma tissue bank, has been created to collect and store biological tissue for use in research, and work is being funded to identify the genetic architecture of the disease.”

Dr Peter Campbell, who is conducting research, identifying which genes are the most important targets for mutations into mesothelioma, says: “Only by understanding its basic biology will we be able to develop a new generation of drugs targeted at the specific abnormalities of mesothelioma cells. This requires sustained investment at all levels of mesothelioma research, from basic genetics and cell biology through drug development and clinical trials.”

Dr Campbell is currently sequencing the DNA for all 20,000 genes in the human genome from 75 mesothelioma samples and comparing this sequence to normal blood samples from the same patients.

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Meanwhile, Dr Elizabeth Sage has done some promising work, too. She says that she is the “only person working anywhere in the world on an innovatory treatment called TRAIL—a drug linked to stem cells, which can lead to the killing  off of all mesothelioma cancer cells, which may have application in humans with adult stem cells.”  Dr Sage has also stated that it would take “£2.5 million to move from the animal stage, with the mice that she has been working on, to clinical trials.”

This does not seem like an outrageous sum of money when measured against the potential outcomes and saving of many of those 60,000 lives which could be affected by mesothelioma in the coming years.

To take all of this work and research forward requires sustained funding, and it is simply not true to suggest that there are not first-class researchers and research projects waiting to be funded. We do not have to accept that another 60,000 British people will die of this disease; we do not have to accept the suffering, human misery and hopelessness which accompany diagnosis.

Lord Alton states that: “Mesothelioma research funding is currently so low that the temptation is to undertake work on other diseases where funding is secure and sustained. But we can do something about that. It simply is not good enough to rely on ad hoc contributions from insurers, charitable donations and modest government funding. This unreliable approach jeopardises the possibilities of life-saving breakthroughs. The stark numbers of people that this dreadful disease kills and the wholly inadequate funding that has gone to address and ameliorate it speak for themselves.”

Without appropriate funding, it is impossible for many researchers to make long-term commitment to create a research group and study a disease over many years or decades, to ensure that advances in understanding are made available.

Further reading

House of Lords mesothelioma debate manuscript (Friday 20th November 2015)

What is mesothelioma?

The British Lung Foundation

Cancer Research UK

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