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UK high in cancer research league
How the UK fares
How the UK fares
Scientists in the UK are riding high in a league table of world cancer research, according to the latest figures.

However, the British are still pipped for top spot by both the US and Italy.

The rough assessment is based on the number of research papers about trials of potential cancer treatments published in medical journals between 1995 and 1999 - a total of 3,247 from 20 countries.

However, it is no indicator of the quality of research contained within them.

The count was carried out by a team at the University of Udine in Italy, and its members were pleasantly surprised to find their own country in silver medal position.

Dr Francesco Grossi, who led the survey, said: "Overall, the results were as we expected - we expected the USA, UK, Japan and France in the top spots."

Big impact

However, the team did examine what it called the "impact factor" of each piece of research.

This is based on the number of times a particular scientific paper about cancer was cited or quoted in subsequent papers on the same subject.

It found that north American research appeared to have more "impact" on average than European research.

In total, US research teams delivered 1,186 papers - almost 38% of the total - the next highest, Italy, managed less than 10%.

The UK produced 267 papers, 8.5% of the total.

Another clear split was in the type of clinical trials carried out in Europe and north America.

The US were involved in many more early trials - called "phase I", which test primarily the safety of new compounds developed to treat cancer.

Later work

In Europe, the emphasis was far more on later trials, "phase III", in which safety has already been established, and the drug's performance is being tested and compared with existing medications.

Dr Grossi said: "The differences may be explained by the fact that the US is currently the richest reservoir of biomedicine and biotechnology in the world.

"New compounds and molecules coming out from the numerous US biopharmaceutical companies are first tested in US phase I trials."

This could also partly explain the width of the gap between the US and Europe - many potential treatments will fail at phase I and never make it to full phase III trials.

It also might explain the "impact factor" of US research, as early research, by its nature, is far more likely to get quoted or cited than later research.

Trial by paperwork

Doctors are in danger of getting swamped by the sheer quantity of medical trials and reports being carried out worldwide.

Some estimates suggest that health professionals should be reading 19 medical and scientific articles a day to keep their skills up to date, although many simply wait for someone else to read them all and produce a summary which incorporates all of them.

The UK is acknowledged as a world-leader in many fields of biomedical research, although there have been warnings about a "brain drain" to the US, where funding is more plentiful.

Here, the government funded Medical Research Council provides money for specific projects, as do charities such as the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, the Cancer Research Campaign and others.

Simon Vincent, research manager at the Cancer Research Campaign in the UK, said that the research environment in the UK was improving following the establishment of national bodies to coordinate clinical trials.

"The UK very recently set up the National Cancer Research Institute - an overseeing body with staff whose job is to try to coordinate various research activity.

"This is quite an exciting development, plus, as a result of the government's National Cancer Plan, there is more money being put into research."

The European Cancer Conference - full coverage

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THE DISEASE
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