The number of terminally-ill cancer patients taking part in clinical trials at the UK’s 19 experimental cancer medicine (ECM) centres is set to more than double by 2012.

More than 780 patients are currently taking part in trials at the centres involving medicines which have not been licensed by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) but, by 2012, every patient who is eligible to join an ECM trial will be able to do so, says Professor Herbie Newell, who coordinates the ECM network.

“By 2012 we hope to have expanded availability to the point where every patient who wants access to an experimental cancer treatment can have it," Prof Newell, who is Professor of Cancer Therapeutics, Northern Institute of Cancer Research, Newcastle upon Tyne, told The Observer newspaper.

The UK-wide ECMC Network is a joint initiative between Cancer Research UK and the Departments of Health in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It was launched in October 2006, with a budget of £35 million over a five-year period, with the aim of bringing together laboratory and clinical patient-based research to speed the development of new anti-cancer treatments and biomarkers by evaluating new drugs and individual treatments. Through a combination of regular national meetings, open forums and workshops, the initiative aims to share best practice and expertise across the Network, and thus revolutionise the treatment of cancer in the UK.

Patients who are eligible to join a trial are those whose cancer treatment on the National Health Service (NHS) - surgery, chemotherapy, or radiotherapy, either alone or in combination - has failed or is no longer working. They must however be well enough to take part in the trials, for which they are not paid.

The Observer points out that patients on the trial have between a one in 20 and a one in five chance of benefiting from the drugs but, as cancer drugs become more targeted to individual forms of the disease, their chances of responding are slowly improving.

Patients are “queuing up” at all 19 centres to take part in an ECM study, said Prof Newell, pointing out that: “inherent in experimental cancer medicine is the possibility that any individual patient will benefit because it is a new treatment.”

The newspaper quotes the Patients Association as welcoming the fact that many more terminally-ill people will have the opportunity to receive experimental treatments, but also pointing out that there would be less need for them to do so if they were able to use the drugs which have been authorized elsewhere in Europe but which the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has deemed too expensive.

- The ECM Network Centres are located in Belfast, Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, London Barts, London Institute of Cancer Research, London Imperial, London KCL, London UCL, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford, Sheffield and Southampton.