Sarah Boseley, health editor
October 18, 2006
A pan-European cancer campaign was under intense scrutiny last night over the scale of involvement of the world's leading maker of cancer drugs.
Cancer United, which is due to be launched with a fanfare in Brussels tomorrow, is being presented as a pioneering effort by a coalition of doctors, nurses and patients to push for equal access to cancer care across the EU. However, the campaign is being entirely funded by Roche, the maker of Herceptin and Avastin. A senior company executive sits on the board. The company's PR firm Weber Shandwick is the secretariat and has been heavily promoting it to clinicians and journalists. And the principal study on which it is based has been hotly contested - and was also funded by Roche.
MEPs and the head of the European Cancer Patients Coalition have already withdrawn from Cancer United's executive board, amid concerns over the funding and lack of transparency.
Roche last night strongly denied the campaign was in effect a marketing exercise.
However, one of the UK's leading cancer experts, Michel Coleman from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the Guardian he had grave concerns about Cancer United.
"Governments will no doubt be pressed to fund a big increase in expenditure on cancer drugs - on the entirely spurious grounds that such an increase has been proven to increase national survival rates. I wonder if all the dignitaries on the executive board of Cancer United are aware of this murky background.
"Cancer patient groups should think twice before accepting sponsorship from Cancer United."
He is highly critical of the study that is central to the campaign. The report, from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, links patient survival to the amount their government spends on drugs.
Prof Coleman said the report represents "woefully simplistic research... This is clearly nonsense. For most cancers, higher survival results from earlier diagnosis and a combination of expert surgery and/or radiotherapy, as well as from the use of cancer drugs."
Cancer United was expecting to launch in the European parliament itself but will now use the elegant Bibliotheque Solvay, which boasts of visits by UN general secretary Kofi Annan and Bill Gates. Tomorrow's meeting is chaired by the former ITN political editor, John Sergeant.
In its promotional material, the campaign says it "brings together for the first time under one banner all parties concerned with the care of all cancer patients... in Europe." It aims to collect one million signatures and will press the European commission for an EU-wide strategy.
But concern about Cancer United and the role of Roche - whose drugs include Herceptin, licensed for early and late-stage breast cancer, Avastin for bowel cancer and Tarceva for lung cancer - has been growing for weeks.
One of the members of a small group called MEPs Against Cancer, Adamos Adamou, was invited to join the executive board and attended an early meeting, but pulled out.
He and two fellow MEPs wrote to the chair of the executive board, Professor John Smyth from Edinburgh University, welcoming moves to raise awareness around the prevention of cancer but warning "we have reservations about the transparency of the Cancer United initiative, which appears to be solely funded by one pharmaceutical company.
"It would seem that the secretariat is provided by a paid consultancy rather than an independent charitable organisation." This secretariat "would be well advised to identify themselves", the letter goes on.
Lynn Faulds Wood, chairman of the European Cancer Patients Coalition, found herself listed as a member of the campaign's executive board without her agreement. She has asked to be removed. "We have reservations about the transparency of the Cancer United initiative, which appears to have only one funder," she said.
Prof Coleman wrote a detailed critique of the Karolinska report in Cancer World, the magazine of the independent European School of Oncology. He was alarmed to find Roche had approached the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine seeking a senior academic to review the study's findings for the campaign launch to increase the report's academic credibility.
"One can be highly critical of European inequalities in cancer survival - and I am critical - but attempting to manipulate public opinion or national cancer policies on the basis of poor science about the availability of cancer drugs is not the right strategy for addressing those inequalities," he said.
Prof Coleman found the report seriously flawed and its conclusions "all wrong". The report has also been criticised by the UK cancer tsar, Mike Richards.
Prof Smyth, who wrote the foreword to the Karolinska report, says the campaign for a debate on cancer care standards was his idea and is not solely based on drugs provision.
He said he had a grant from Roche and had asked the company's head of international public policy to join the board, but added: "Somebody has got the idea that we might be in the pay of Roche or it might be a publicity stunt, but that couldn't be further from the truth. There is absolutely nothing inappropriate about having the support of industry. I wish people would stop seeing them as the enemy."
Catherine Steel, Roche's head of international public policy, who is on the campaign's executive board, said: "The Cancer United campaign is about cancer care for patients. It is not about marketing for Roche."
Weber Shandwick, the PR agency, acknowledged it was the campaign secretariat. "There is a grant from Roche but it is a first grant," said a spokeswoman.