Why the next government needs to support clinical research – for our health and the NHS – Cancer Research UK

Our latest survey of the UK’s clinical research workforce suggests there could be trouble ahead. But it also tells us how policymakers could reestablish the country’s position as a global biomedical leader. Together with our Longer, Better Lives manifesto and programme for government, it can guide us to a healthier, wealthier Britain. Joe Kiely, one of our policy advisors, talks through the findings. 

On 5 March 2020, doctors in Reading recorded the UK’s first COVID death. They knew what was happening; they just didn’t have a way to treat it. Case numbers had doubled in two days, and they were only beginning to climb.  

UK research climbed higher. Planned, approved and launched within weeks, the Oxford RECOVERY trial went on to become the world’s biggest trial of potential COVID treatments, recruiting tens of thousands of patients across almost 200 NHS sites.  

By summer, thanks to RECOVERY, the UK became the first country in the world to identify that a steroid called dexamethasone could help treat people with severe COVID. Just a year after the trial launched, that discovery had saved an estimated 1 million lives around the world, including 22,000 in the UK. 

COVID was an unprecedented situation, and it would be tricky to launch trials for diseases like cancer so quickly. Still, Professor Martin Landray, who co-led RECOVERY, could already see the bigger picture. The UK generated the evidence for dexamethasone because a focus on clinical research had been integrated across the NHS. If we held on to that, we could make slow and bureaucratic NHS trials a thing of the past.  

“I think RECOVERY has set a new standard for what can be delivered,” Landray said, “and not just for pandemics. It would be a travesty if we went back to a situation where it takes years sometimes to get a trial off the ground.” 

Our latest survey of the clinical research workforce suggests there’s a risk that Landray’s worst case scenario becomes a reality. According to almost three-quarters of respondents, it’s become more difficult to deliver research in a timely manner in the last 18 months.  

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