Cancer Research UK-funded scientists are investigating if identifying patterns in medication given to patients before they develop cancer could help secure earlier diagnosis.

Only around half of people with the most common cancers present with so-called “red-flag” symptoms, and the proportion is even lower in those cancers with the poorest survival rates such as pancreatic, stomach, ovarian and brain cancer.

The research, which is being led by Health Data Insight, will look for patterns in prescriptions and other data could help guide GP referrals particularly in those patients with non-specific symptoms.

Alongside Public Health England and the NHS Business Services Authority, Health Data Insight has created an anonymous dataset of nearly all primary care prescription data on around 80 million medications being prescribed each month.

The researchers plan to link this to data in the National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service to seek out trends in medications given to patients before they were diagnosed with cancer, and also garner more information on rarer cancers like brain tumours that are notoriously hard to recognise.

“Large studies like this are only possible because anonymous data on large numbers of cancer patients is available for research through the NHS. Our idea is to use this unparalleled information on prescription data and other information to better identify patients for referrals or follow-up,” commented Dr Jem Rashbass, medical director at Health Data Insight.

“Cancer survival in the UK lags behind other countries in Europe, in part because people are diagnosed later when the disease is more advanced and harder to treat,” added Dr Iain Foulkes, director of research and innovation at Cancer Research UK. “This is a potentially powerful study that could transform the way cancer is detected and is made possible because of the unique strengths of the UK health system.”

“We know that timely diagnosis of cancer leads to better outcomes for our patients, so any new data that can support GPs refer patients appropriately should be welcomed - but we also need much better access to reliable, diagnostic tools in the community,” noted Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners.

Diagnosis in general practice is “incredibly difficult”, she said, “especially within the constraints of the standard 10-minute consultation – and currently we have one of the lowest access rates to diagnostic tests in Europe.

“Nevertheless, GPs are already doing a good job of appropriately referring our patients that we suspect of having cancer - 75 percent of patients found to have cancer are referred after only one or two GP consultations, and in the last five years the proportion of cancers diagnosed as an emergency has dropped from 25 percent to 20 percent, and a higher proportion of patients are being diagnosed at an earlier stage of the disease.”