THE BLOG

Robin Hood 2.0: A New Hope for Cancer Patients?

14/04/2014 09:59 BST | Updated 13/06/2014 10:59 BST

Mesothelioma. Mee-zo-thee-lee-oma. Many people reading this will never have heard of it. Yet this deadly cancer kills around 2,500 people a year in the UK, making us the worst affected country in the world.

Meso, as it is commonly called, can affect anyone who has been exposed to the loose asbestos fibres that cause it. Though most common amongst those who work in trades and industry - plumber, joiners, shipyard workers - many meso patients developed the disease just by working in a building containing loose asbestos. Many more have died from meso having been exposed to asbestos whilst serving their country in the navy.

Others, such as dear British Lung Foundation supporter and meso campaigner Mavis Nye developed the disease simply from washing their partner's asbestos-contaminated clothes.

As Mavis told me, "my husband blames himself even though he was just an innocent worker. He says he wishes it had been him, but what good would that do? My heart would still be broken and there would still be no hope for a cure."

And that is perhaps the worst aspect of meso. There is little by way of effective treatments, and no cure. No hope. As a result, most people with meso die within months of their diagnosis. Fewer than one in ten will survive just three years.

Sylvia Worth, who tragically lost both her brother and husband to meso, wrote to us last year about how the lack of treatment options was the hardest things to deal with.

"The one thing, the only thing that really mattered to both my brother and husband was that there were no treatments, operations, or anything, that could stop the spread of mesothelioma once they had been diagnosed".

Sylvia's is not a lone voice: this is something I hear from meso patients and their families time and time again.

It is estimated that more than 60,000 people will die from this dreadful disease over the next 30 years unless new treatments are discovered. Yet research into meso - the only thing that is likely to find those treatments - is shamefully underfunded, receiving a fraction of the investment received by diseases that kill similar number of people, such as skin cancer.

With rates of meso having quadrupled in the last 30 years, the need to invest more in meso research is more now pertinent than ever. So how do we afford it?

Recently in Parliament, the possibility of asking the insurance industry to contribute to meso research was discussed.

Insurers pay out millions of pounds every year in compensation to people with mesothelioma who were exposed to asbestos in the workplace. Just a fraction more - for instance, a mere 0.1% of the estimated £11 billion that UK insurers will have to pay out to meso patients over the coming years - could transform meso research in this country and save thousands of lives.

And while there's no doubt that the multibillion pound global insurance industry can afford it, this idea is more than a simple Robin Hood principle of taking from the rich to help those in need. With meso patients living longer as a result of better treatments, the amount of compensation the industry would have to pay out would be greatly reduced. Saving lives could potentially saving them millions - a win-win situation.

The UK economy may be growing again, but as our politicians are always keen to remind us, public finances are still tight. We therefore need to be creative about how we fund vital medical research in this country. In that context, the impact a contribution from the insurance company, of the kind outlined above, could have really cannot be overstated.

Of course there will be economic benefits: boosting our research industry, saving insurers money, and all without burdening the tax-payer. But the most profound difference will be for those living with meso and their families. It will give them something most of them dare not have before: hope.