Sarah Jones: We must ensure people with brain tumours live well for longer - what better tribute to Tessa Jowell could there be?
The Commons will have the opportunity this week to pay tribute to Tessa and to debate this campaign on cancer treatment she cares so passionately about, writes Sarah Jones
Last May, our friend and colleague Tessa Jowell was diagnosed with a high-grade brain tumour called glioblastoma multiforme (GBM). This type of cancer, like many brain cancers, is very aggressive and very difficult to treat. Life expectancy for patients is very poor and has not improved in recent decades - 60% of people diagnosed will die within one year.
I have known Tessa for many years. She took me on to work for her on the Olympics, where I saw first-hand her relentless drive to make the world a better place. Like everything that Tessa does, she faced this enormous challenge with resilience and saw it as an opportunity to campaign to improve the lives of others.
In January, Tessa led a moving debate in the House of Lords, where she talked bravely and openly about the reality of life with a brain tumour. She talked of hope. Hope for cancer patients across the world. That the revolution we need is close at hand. Hope that we can live well together with cancer, for longer, not just dying of it.
That debate had a big impact on people across the country, including MPs.The Commons will have the opportunity this week to pay tribute to Tessa and to debate this campaign she cares so passionately about. The debate will call on the government to improve the use of patient data to drive forward medical advances and to promote greater use of adaptive clinical trials.
There are lots of reasons for the absence of breakthroughs in brain cancer treatment. Of course, it’s partly down to resources. Brain tumours are incredibly complex yet less than two per cent of cancer research funding in the UK is spent on them.
But as Tessa has said, it is not just about money. We need to radically transform the way we develop new treatments. There is a long history of failure in traditional clinical trials for brain tumours and no new vital drugs have been developed for 50 years. And for scientists conducting research in this area, lack of good quality patient data is really hampering efforts.
After her Lords debate, Tessa led an expert roundtable event which brought together senior figures in Government, the NHS, industry, and research. It was a powerful meeting which set out the key priorities and innovations needed to tackle brain cancer.
The event helped to secure some very important wins for brain tumour patients, including commitments from NHS England to include people who have been treated for brain cancer in the rollout of the Cancer Quality of Life metric, and Public Health England agreed to work with brain tumour charities to explore greater access to data. It also coincided with an announcement of £45m of research funding into brain tumours supported by Cancer Research UK and the Department of Health.
But there is still a long way to go, particularly around clinical trials and data sharing. The proportion of brain cancer patients taking part in a clinical trial is less than half of the average across all cancers, and traditional trials take years to produce results. Ninety of brain cancer patients want to share their data to help accelerate research yet we still don’t have a proper national brain tumour registry.
The Government, in response to Tessa’s campaign, is currently considering a raft of recommendations around these issues. We are hoping they will announce a programme of activity this week. What better tribute to Tessa could there be than ensuring people with brain tumours live better lives for longer?
Sarah Jones is Labour MP for Croydon Central. Her debate on cancer treatment takes place in the Commons on Thursday 19 April