Parliament: 'Pink drink' helps surgeons target brain tumours


To mark the first anniversary of the death of Baroness Tessa Jowell and to honour the extraordinary impact she had as she campaigned with such power and hard won personal knowledge about the need to transform UK brain tumour diagnosis and treatment. I gave the following statement in the House of Lords today:

‘Brain cancer is the most common cause of cancer-related death in children and young people under 19. Baroness Jowell called for all patients to benefit from 5-ALA, or ‘pink drink’ as it is otherwise known, a dye that makes cancerous cells glow under ultraviolet light, thereby making it easier for surgeons to target the right areas. Trials have shown that, when the dye is used, surgeons can successfully remove a whole tumour in 70% of cases, compared to 30% without.

I am pleased to inform the House that we have now rolled out this ground-breaking treatment aid across England, with the potential to save the lives of 2,000 patients every year. This is all part of the £33 billion investment that we are making in the NHS long-term plan. This medical procedure will now be expanded to every neurological centre in England. It is a fitting testament to Tessa’s memory.

It is worth pausing for a moment to remember Tessa’s courageous words urging us to rise above our differences. She said that this,

‘is not about politics but about patients and the community of carers who love and support them. It is … about the NHS but it is not just about money. It is about the power of kindness’.

Tessa represented the very best of our democracy and of our Parliament. On behalf of all those who have died, all those who have campaigned—children and adults alike—and all those seeking to do research, of which there must be more to come in future, we are acting.

I want to mention three areas in detail. The first is research. During the past year, the Government have made available an unprecedented £40 million to fund cutting-edge research of new treatments and drugs through the NIHR. This will build on the UK’s outstanding reputation for neuroscience and oncology research, and increase the quality, quantity and diversity of brain cancer research. The funding was further enhanced by Cancer Research UK committing an additional £25 million to support brain tumour research. The size of these pledges will cement the UK’s position as a leading global centre of research into brain cancer.

The second area is our NHS cancer workforce. We now have a record number of specialist cancer staff in the NHS and that number is set to grow as we put a record £33.9 billion into the NHS over the next five years. Health Education England’s cancer workforce plan and our upcoming NHS people plan will set out in detail the steps that we are taking to recruit a world-class cancer workforce. We made an additional investment of £8.6 million in the cancer workforce last year. We aim to have 300 more radiographers starting training by 2021.

The final area is empowering patients. My department has worked closely with the brain cancer mission, Jess Mills and others to ensure that patients are at the heart of all our efforts. The mission brings together government, the NHS, researchers, pharmaceutical companies and patients. Together, we are working to ensure that data is shared and disseminated so that more patients in the UK and internationally can benefit from what is learned. Due to the complexity of brain cancer, we must provide joined-up care that meets each patient’s unique needs. The NHS is focusing on improving care for brain cancer patients to ensure that they have access to dedicated out-patient clinics and consultations wherever they live.

I hope that the whole House will recognise the important progress that has been made over the past year in rising to the challenge set by Baroness Jowell and the families of those who have lost loved ones. This has been possible only through the collective efforts of patients, the NHS, charities and industry. The work has, and will continue to be, collaborative.

In her final speech in the other place last January, Tessa said:

‘I am not afraid. I am fearful that this new and important approach may be put into the “too difficult” box, but I also have such great hope’.

That hope was an inspiration to us all, and it still is. We must keep striving, and keep rising to the challenge that she and those families have set us.’

Read more about the debate here.

Nicola Blackwood