Spending on research by partners in the UK’s National Cancer Research Institute (NCRI) grew by a cumulative 52.3% to £393 million (€499 million) between 2002 and 2006. But some difficult-to-treat cancers are lagging behind both in research activity and improved survival rates, the NCRI warns.

An analysis by the Institute, a UK-wide partnership between government, charities and industry that promotes collaborative efforts in cancer research, found that the NCRI’s 21 member organisations spent a total of £1.6 billion towards this end between 2002 and 2006. During this period, the Institute notes, most types of cancer attracted increased investment from members and spending on cancer prevention doubled.

All the same, “some cancers fared better than others”. The disparity applies particularly to lung, pancreatic and oesophageal cancers, “which remain difficult to treat and research”, the NCRI noted. This is largely due to their symptoms often presenting late, when the cancer is already at an advanced stage.

“These figures show the extent to which investment in research is mirrored by increasing survival rates – which is great news,” commented NCRI director Dr Jane Cope. “But it’s of concern that we’re not seeing the same improvements for some of the harder-to-treat cancers.”

As Cope pointed out, there tends to be a snowball effect whereby the more a particular cancer is researched, the more avenues open for further work. “Well understood cancers like breast and leukaemia have a ‘critical mass’ of research behind them that has been built over many years and which leads to more research and promising findings.”

While nearly 4% of research funding from NCRI members targeted to a specific tumour site went to lung cancer in 2006, the disease accounts for 22% of all cancer deaths. NCRI set up a group to find out why lung cancer has received less attention relative to incidence and mortality. A number of priority areas for action were identified and are being pursued, including £2.25 million allocated to supportive and palliative care research in lung cancer.

Annual investment in cancer prevention research ballooned from £6 million to £14 million between 2002 and 2006, now making up almost 4% of the NCRI’s total funding portfolio (2% in 2002). The funds have been administered in part through the National Prevention Research Initiative, established by the Institute in 2004 to drive forward work in this field.