We talk through the highlights of the 2014 Britain Against Cancer conference.

Friday 12 December 2014      Policy and campaigns blog
Highlights from Britain Against Cancer 2014

The annual Britain Against Cancer conference, hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Cancer (APPGC) is an opportunity for the cancer community to come together and discuss issues of concern to those affected by cancer. It’s also an opportunity for politicians from both sides of the House to address patients, charities and industry representatives and make their party’s promises for cancer services.

This year, as the last conference before a general election, was no exception with both the Secretary of State for Health and the Shadow Secretary of State for Health laying down their pre-election commitments.

Investing in the cure

Jeremy Hunt, the Secretary of State for Health, highlighted the Government’s commitment to the 100,000 Genomes Project which aims to sequence 100,000 genomes to aid the development of treatments or cures for rare disease, cancer and infectious disease. The Secretary of State also highlighted the Government’s commitment to investing in innovation and committed to further investment in proton beam therapy and innovative radiotherapy technology.

When it came time for questions from the floor however, it quickly became obvious that the main concern of those present, both patients and industry representatives, was the future of access to cancer drugs.

Both Jeremy Hunt and Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England, were asked about the future of the Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF) and plans to reform the system to ensure that patients can access the treatments they need. Both spoke of the need to make the CDF sustainable and ensure that the approach used by the CDF is consistent with that used by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

Access to vital cancer treatments

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the Shadow Secretary of State for Health, Andy Burnham, made access to cancer treatments a key part of his address. Widely trailed in the press, Mr Burnham laid out Labour’s plans for a ‘Cancer Treatments Fund’ to replace the CDF when it expires in March 2016. This fund would be worth £330million a year and would be used not only for drugs, but also to fund innovative radiotherapy and surgery techniques.

Alongside this, Mr Burnham committed to a wide-ranging review of NICE, intended to ensure that the innovative treatments made available through the Cancer Treatments Fund would make their way into routine commissioning. This was all part of the Labour Party’s ’10-year manifesto’ for cancer which covered prevention, early diagnosis, treatments and end of life care and is something that Breakthrough Breast Cancer will be seeking to find out more about in the run up to the election.

Demand a fair price

With the focus so far on access to cancer drugs, it was also no surprise that the panel discussion on this subject hosted by Breakthrough Breast Cancer and the Rarer Cancers Foundation was full to capacity.

Chaired by Alastair McLellan, Editor of the Health Service Journal, the panel consisted of Meindert Boysen, Programme Director of Technology Appraisals at NICE, Barbara McLaughlan, Head of External Affairs at Novartis, Leela Barham, Health Economist from Leela Barham Economic Consulting, and Mike Birtwistle, Founding Partner at Incisive Health.

The discussion was fast-paced and fascinating, covering all aspects of the access system including drug pricing, NICE’s appraisal process, how the CDF process works and potential risk-sharing schemes to make more expensive drugs available.

While the discussion was too detailed to describe in full here, one thing we definitely appreciated was the honesty shown by all panellists in their responses. While probably not surprising to any of the audience, it was refreshing to hear Barbara acknowledge the expectations of shareholders when explaining how prices are set. It was also refreshing to hear Meindert describe NICE and the threshold that NICE is will to pay for drugs as political instruments.

Not a long term solution

The conference was fascinating, but for those of us campaigning for better access to cancer drugs it perhaps raised more questions than it answered.

None of the politicians spoke about a long-term solution to the issue of access to cancer drugs or addressed the issue of high pricing from the pharmaceutical industry. We are challenging all political parties to commit to solving the problem of access to cancer treatments in the lifetime of the next government.

Extraordinary funds, whether they be Cancer Drugs Funds or Cancer Treatment Funds will not be sufficient in the long run. And, like the thousands of people affected by cancer, we are tired of waiting.

About the author

Sally Greenbrook is Policy Manager at Breast Cancer Now. She has a background in health policy and enjoys getting lost in the detail of the policy world.