Pharmaceutical heavyweights Pfizer and AstraZeneca are providing financial muscle to a Cancer Research UK initiative to boost the uptake of genetic testing for cancer diagnosis throughout the National Health Service.

The availability of the molecular diagnosis for cancer on NHS remains patchy, and is currently only possible using a single test for each mutation. CR UK's Stratified Medicine Programme is hoping to create a multi-gene panel able to test for genetic markers for medicines both already in use as well as those in late-stage development, helping doctors tailor therapy to each patient and giving patients better access to the most innovative treatments as they become available.

Under the £5.5 million programme, which will be led by the charity with funding from AstraZeneca and Pfizer, CR UK will select six hospitals and three labs to collect tumour samples from 9,000 cancer patients and test them for gene faults linked to the disease. The group then plans to develop a clear set of standards and processes for the molecular diagnosis of tumours applicable for national use, to help patients get access to the tests they need throughout the UK.

"This kind of testing will mean better selection of patients for clinical trials with drugs which are more likely to make an impact on their disease," said Susan Galbraith, vice president and head of Oncology, Innovative Medicines, at AstraZeneca. "Ultimately this will help us develop drugs which improve the survival of patients with cancer,” she added.

The initiative is "closely aligned" with the Technology Strategy Board’s £5.6 million investment in tumour profiling and data capture to boost cancer care as well as the government's new cancer strategy, which aims to improve the diagnosis, care and survival of patients with the disease throughout England, the charity noted.

New cancer campaign

Meanwhile, the government has this week launched its first ever campaign to raise awareness of bowel cancer signs and symptoms.

The ‘Be Clear on Cancer’ campaign - which includes adverts in the press, TV and radio - will initially be piloted in the East of England and South West for seven weeks, with a subsequent rollout across the rest of the country if successful. 

Developed with both clinical and stakeholder advice, the campaign is based on GPs encouraging people to ‘just tell me’ if they recognise potential signs and symptoms of cancer, which are: blood in your poo, or looser poo, for three weeks.

"No one likes talking about their poo – it’s embarrassing. But if we see something different and tell our GP it could save our life," said Care Services Minister Paul Burstow, commenting on the campaign. "Early diagnosis makes a huge difference to cancer survival rates and bowel cancer is one of the biggest killers", he added.