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We'll take the red tape

MagazineNovember 2003 (Vol. 14 Issue 8)We'll take the red tape

Oncologists and cancer researchers in the UK are very angry

Oncologists and cancer researchers in the UK are very angry. The object of their ire is the 'faceless bureaucracy' of the European Union in Brussels which, they say, is holding back research and new therapies into the disease.

Clinical trials into new drug treatments are taking years 'instead of months', while scientists are bogged down in a proliferation of new rules and regulations instead of concentrating on pure research. One new cancer drug has been held up in red tape for over three years, a delay that its developer claims is 'undoubtedly costing lives'.

These controls are, in part, a necessary response to medical malpractice and done in the name of public safety. One such scandal occurred at a Bristol hospital, where doctors removed and kept organs from dead babies without the consent of the parents. It was in direct response to this scandal, and others like it in the UK and in other EU countries, that Brussels wanted to make medicine more accountable.

It may not just be the scandals to which the bureaucrats are responding. Perhaps, too, they are also aware of dubious and in-complete research that has been undertaken in the name of science, and the roll call of deaths and permanent disabilities that too often accompany a new 'breakthrough' drug.

While most laypeople might agree that medical research needs to have checks and balances, is it at too high a price? Are lives really being lost while the country's finest are busy filling in forms?

In the first place, to expect to complete a clinical trial into a new cancer drug in just a matter of months is na"ive in the extreme. These are serious trials involving very powerful chemicals that need to be carefully assessed over time. To release such a drug onto the market after just a matter of months is unlikely to be in the public's best interest, no matter how promising early results seem to be.

Instead of bleating, cancer researchers might instead count their blessings that therapies and drugs are at least being tested.

For the past century, scores of 'alternative' cancer therapies have been denied even that courtesy. Their pioneers and practitioners have been closed down, imprisoned or forced to flee to other continents. Sometimes, their work has been destroyed, and this after they claim to have successfully treated hundreds - and sometimes thousands - of patients.

This doesn't mean that all things 'alternative' are good and that all conventional treatments are bad. Some of these alternatives were quackery - but not all of them. Perhaps only a few of them had the complete answer to cancer, but surely they deserved to be investigated as another possible weapon against a disease that remains one of the major killers in the West.

No one applauds the expansion of red tape and bureaucracy, least of all from Brussels, but medicine has done little in its war on cancer to suggest that its new breakthroughs are going to be any better than those that have come before. Chemotherapy, for example, remains remarkably ineffective in the face of all but a small handful of cancers.

Perhaps it is time that, in the name of humanity, funding was found to explore alternative approaches. We suspect that alternative practitioners would accept such a way forward - and with all the red tape and form-filling that goes with it.
Bryan Hubbard and Lynne McTaggart


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