Legislation has been proposed in Parliament which “could make every doctor a researcher and every willing patient a research participant.” 

Introducing the Medical Innovation Bill in the Commons yesterday, Conservative MP Michael Ellis said the Bill would also, for the first time, set out in law “the obvious difference between reckless experimentation and responsible, scientific innovation.”

The huge opportunities for innovation offered by the NHS are seriously hampered by current law, which discourages doctors from “considering a sensible, peer group-approved innovation, to which full consent has been given, after all other options have been exhausted,” because they would be departing from standard procedure. “Then, if anything goes wrong, there will be a trial at which they could be found guilty of medical negligence,” Mr Ellis told MPs.

Under the bill, any proposed innovation would require the formal approval of a hospital’s multi-disciplinary team of doctors, as well as fully-informed consent by the patient. “This is a severe test, but however severe, it is better than the current position, in which the road ahead to any innovation in cancer treatment is closed by law,” he said.

Moreover, the Bill actually strengthens the ability of the medical profession to prevent reckless conduct and to control innovation properly. “The good doctor will therefore feel safer in the work that he or she does, and the bad doctor will more easily be revealed as negligent,” he added.

The proposal, which has already been introduced in the Lords by Lord Maurice Saatchi as a Private Members’ Bill, focuses largely on cancer treatment, but its implications have wider consequences for a great many conditions and it is an “excellent vehicle for driving patient access to medicines further up the political agenda,” says Les Halpin, founder of activist group Empower: Access to Medicines.

“For too long the drug development process has been allowed to continue unchanged and unchallenged. Developing a drug is expensive, complicated and too reliant on the individual drive of a small number of patients and doctors. People with life-threatening conditions are given few options to take drugs that have shown promise at an early stage,” says Mr Halpin.

• The group is urging people to sign an e-petition, by February 14 2014, calling on the government to give people with terminal illnesses the legal right to choose to try drugs in the early stages of development.