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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 October, 2003, 11:17 GMT
Row over medical research claim
Drugs
Drugs are tested in clinical trials
A claim that new clinical research is dwindling in the UK - threatening the search for cures - have been attacked.

Research published in the British Medical Journal suggests that the number of trials of drugs and treatments is falling.

A call for more government research funding has been made by a separate report from the Academy of Medical Sciences.

However, the Medical Research Council says the last decade has seen an rise in the number of trials it funds.

The UK is one of the leading countries in the world for biomedical research, but there are concerns from scientists that the amount of research is falling away.

A particular concern are the state-funded clinical trials - which test the effectiveness of different treatments by comparing them head to head in randomly chosen patients.

A failure to underpin clinical research now will result in a cost to human life, maybe not today or tomorrow, but certainly over the next 10 to 20 years
Professor Paul Stewart, University of Birmingham
While commercial drug companies fund their own trials of the new drugs they want to sell, independent trials are an important source of information for doctors, particularly in the NHS, where value for money is of great interest.

Researchers from the MRC, NHS and the Cochrane Centre in Oxford looked at 1,464 trials organised between 1980 and 2002.

It suggested a "noticeable decline" in the number of NHS-funded trials between 1998 and 2002.

Storing up problems

Professor Paul Stewart from the University of Birmingham, also writing in the BMJ, said that the loss of good quality research now would have serious consequences later.

He said: "A failure to underpin clinical research now will result in a cost to human life, maybe not today or tomorrow, but certainly over the next 10 to 20 years."

The NHS is perhaps more dependent on a healthy research environment than other healthcare systems
John Bell, Academy of Royal Medical Sciences
The academy told the BMJ that a lack of facilities, scientists and basic funding was to blame.

But they said that excessive legal and ethical red tape was also holding up research.

John Bell, from the academy, said: "The NHS is perhaps more dependent on a healthy research environment than other healthcare systems."

He called for any patient who wished to take part in a clinical trial to have the opportunity to do so, and for extra ring-fenced funding to be made available to pay for research.

Upbeat

However, the Medical Research Council rejected the conclusion of the BMJ research that funding bodies were spending less on clinical trials.

Although fewer trials were being carried out, said Professor Colin Blakemore, they tended to be larger scale - producing more reliable results.

Overall, the long-term trend in numbers of trials funded is clearly upwards
Professor Colin Blakemore, Medical Research Council
He said: "The authors of the BMJ paper conclude that support for clinical trials is declining, but this is based on a short-term analysis of the number of clinical trials funded.

"In recent years there's been a trend towards larger, statistically more robust trials, which can provide more conclusive results.

"Overall, the long-term trend in numbers of trials funded is clearly upwards."

Dr Richard Sullivan, from Cancer Research UK - another major sponsor of clinical trials - said that it was wrong to point the finger at bodies funding the trials.

He warned that an upsurge in red tape from Europe was a far greater threat to research in the UK.

He said: "Rather than criticise funding bodies, we should be much more concerned by the effect of the proposed implementation of the EU Clinical Trials Directive.

"In its current form this new legislation threatens to seriously hamper publicly-funded clinical research by introducing new layers of bureaucracy and additional cost, and this has major implications for the sustainability of all non-commercial clinical trials."

The MRC spent 21 milliion on clinical trials in 2001/02, and spends hundreds of millions more on its own dedicated research institutes and centres.

It has come in for criticism itself recently for pledging tens of millions of pounds for the ambitious "Biobank" project, which aims to capture the DNA of hundreds of thousands of people to track the genetic roots of common diseases.

Some research scientists say that, in the current climate, this is money that would be better spent elsewhere.




SEE ALSO:
Will Biobank pay off?
24 Sep 03  |  Health
Effort to keep cancer researchers
23 Jul 03  |  Scotland
Cancer research 'under threat'
05 Jul 03  |  Health


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