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What next for UK cancer research in the Brexit era?


Henry French asks how Brexit might affect cancer researchers and their collaborations with life-science companies.

Posted on 31 January, 2020 by Henry French

Brexit jigsaw puzzle

Image: Brexit jigsaw puzzle. Credit: Daniel Diaz, via Pixabay.

Perhaps it’s appropriate that Big Ben did not toll after all at 11 o’clock on 31 January, when the UK officially left the European Union.

As well as having an association with celebration, bells connotate mourning. As one of England’s most famous poets, John Donne, wrote many centuries ago: “Do not send out to ask for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Cancer researchers are nervous about the implications of Brexit for our collaborations across Europe, and here at The Institute of Cancer Research we have warned of the potential risks for access to clinical trials and new medicines, too.

But that doesn’t mean that the mood is funereal. Indeed, while concerns remain over our departure from the EU, the UK's universities and life-science companies seem cautiously optimistic about their post-Brexit future.

One consistent message coming from our universities, our businesses and our public bodies – notably through the Mayor of London’s #LondonIsOpen campaign – is that the UK is still open for business and will continue to retain the advantages that make it competitive on the world stage, in spite of Brexit.

UK life sciences

As the ICR’s Director of Enterprise, Dr Angela Kukula recently observed, the UK life-science sector is thriving at the moment. Employing in the region of a quarter of a million people in the UK, life sciences are attracting record levels of investment from the private sector, as well as the highest level of current spend on health R&D by a European Government.

Investment is continuing to flow into the life-sciences economy in part because of the strength of the UK’s university sector, which is set to remain strong after Brexit.

The ICR, of course, is a leading force for driving investment in oncology, through our ground-breaking cancer research – particularly in the discovery and development of new cancer drugs. Our work leads to many collaborations and partnerships, millions of pounds of investment, and ultimately the creation of new treatments for patients across the world.

Our researchers are part of a UK ecosystem that incorporates universities, innovative start-ups, biotech and medtech companies and major pharmaceutical companies, some of the largest of which are based here in the UK.

Charities like Cancer Research UK and Wellcome – among the world’s biggest in terms of spending power – breathe life into our life sciences by funding the basic, early-stage science that provides researchers around the world with the crucial fundamental understandings of biology that underpin new treatments for disease.

Meanwhile, our Research Councils fund billions of pounds worth of research each year (£7.5bn in 2018-19), and are aiming to help deliver the Government’s commitment to increase R&D spending to 2.4 per cent of GDP through the UK’s Industrial Strategy.

And the NHS is home to a huge patient population, and some of the most brilliant and dedicated clinicians in the world. It is already integrated into the wider research ecosystem and affords patients access to some of the latest medicines through clinical trials, thanks in part to the NHS’s research arm, the National Institute of Health Research (NIHR).


There are, however, problems with the global drug discovery and development ecosystem – and along with many others in the sector, we are worried that Brexit will exacerbate some of these issues.

We have serious concerns, for example, that Brexit could further exacerbate the difficulties that patients have in accessing new treatments. It is essential that the deal we enter into with the EU does not block access to medicines to UK patients, or dis-incentivise companies from applying for approval in the UK market (3 per cent of global pharmaceutical sales) versus prioritising the EU (25 per cent).

It is also essential that the Government secures a deal that keeps our regulatory frameworks for science, and especially for clinical trials and drug licensing, aligned with the EU.

And we, like many of our peers across UK universities, are very worried about the potential damage to our position as a world leader in science, Brexit may cause by affecting our ability to recruit and retain the best and brightest scientists from across the world.

Mitigating the Brexit risks

But alongside our colleagues across the UK cancer research community and the wider life-sciences industry, we are actively working to mitigate the risks to our research, maintain our researchers’ ability to work with colleagues across Europe, and to maintain patient access to new treatments.

If the UK Government and the EU can agree a deal that mitigates our concerns as we complete the transition period at the end of this year, the UK will continue to perform strongly in life sciences on the world stage.

Our researchers, along with the whole UK cancer research community, are determined to find new treatments for cancer. And we know we can only do this together with our partners and friends across national and continental boundaries.

Leaving the EU will not lessen the determination of the many thousands of us in the UK who are working to find new treatments for cancer, and for other diseases – to discover and develop new treatments for people wherever in the world they may be.

As Donne also wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

“Each man's death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.”


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