23/11/2018 08:56 GMT | Updated 23/11/2018 10:03 GMT

As A Cancer Researcher, Brexit Makes Me Fearful For Our Future Health

I have never seen a better demonstration of the power of scientific collaboration than the pan-European effort to treat and cure cancer. If we leave the EU, we risk throwing that away

Design Cells via Getty Images

The political scuffle about whether it’s Theresa May’s deal, some other deal, or no deal at all is a distraction and it misses the point. Leaving the EU will hurt us, whatever the terms of divorce. 

I know this because I’m a cancer researcher at Queen’s University Belfast, and I have witnessed first hand the tremendous value of EU membership to scientists, doctors and patients.

I have never seen a better demonstration of the power of scientific collaboration than the pan-European effort to treat and cure cancer. The brainpower of an entire continent is being brought to bear to create new treatments and diagnostics. Patients are living longer and gaining better quality of life as a result.

If we leave the EU, on whatever terms we leave, we risk throwing that away.

There are three things the European Union helps scientists do that are really special.

First, it enables ideas and expertise to flow completely freely around the continent. Scientists can work anywhere in Europe, they can travel to conferences and meetings, they never have to worry about visas or paperwork.

This encourages collaboration, and collaboration leads to breakthroughs.

Research my team and I published in Lancet Oncology in partnership with colleagues at King’s College London and the University of Leeds underlines the point.

We found two crucially important things. First, the number of cancer papers being published by UK-based research teams that involve at least one EU researcher is on the increase. Second, that papers powered by cross-EU collaboration have a much greater scientific impact, appearing more frequently in the top tier of medical and scientific journals.

Post-Brexit visas will prevent us recruiting the best scientists to UK teams and a £30,000 minimum salary requirement for ‘skilled professionals’ will stand in the way of talented European PhD researchers.

Second, the EU gives us money. The UK traditionally wins more European science funding than anyone else: a record 15% of the total European pot back in 2015. Since the Brexit vote this has slipped to 12% and Germany has overtaken us at the top of the league.

Third, the EU raises the standard of care for all cancer patients, wherever they are in Europe.

This year a project that my team at Queen’s University Belfast has driven, in partnership with the University of Leeds, won the prestigious European Health Award. We brought together 60 organisations from 25 European countries to create the European Cancer Patient’s Bill of Rights, a powerful tool to tackle inequality of treatment across the continent.

The Bill of Rights helps patients from Belfast to Bucharest get access to the latest cancer diagnostics and therapies.

Here in the UK it was recently decided that the Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) vaccination should be made available to boys as well as girls. This is really important: HPV causes cancers that affect both sexes, including oropharyngeal cancer (a cancer of the throat) which will soon be more common than cervical cancer.

The evidence base from our work on the European Cancer Patient’s Bill of Rights was at the heart of this successful campaign, which will go on to benefit thousands of people.

Our Bill of Rights has made a difference for patients all over Europe, from ending postcode lotteries for treatment in Northern Ireland to seeing national cancer control plans introduced in Eastern Europe.

Without the EU, the European Cancer Patient’s Bill of Rights would not exist. It is based on the premise that every European citizen deserves the same healthcare rights. It was a UK-led project that could not have succeeded without the close collaboration of organisations right across Europe.

The pan-European science machinery that is leading the fight against cancer is powered by a UK engine. In the UK we train the best scientists in the world, we do ground-breaking research, our world-leading NHS helps us trial and introduce new and innovative treatments.

The UK is a powerhouse because we attract the best talent from overseas. Nearly 20% of our research staff are non-UK born, a huge portion of these are from the EU.

Brexit makes me fear for the future of cancer research across the UK, and most critically the health of citizens here and across Europe.

That’s why I am backing a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. Now we know what Brexit really means, and the damage it could do, it’s right that people should have a final say on whether we leave.

The work to treat cancer is a prime example ot the EU helping scientists achieve great things. The Prime Minister needs to take science seriously and support our research endeavours with our European partners. We need to compete, not against each other, but against our common enemy: cancer.

Prof Mark Lawler is Chair in Translational Cancer Genomics and Dean of Education at the Faculty of Medicine, Health and Life Sciences at Queen’s University Belfast. He recently collected The 2018 European Health Award at the European Health Forum Gastein for a pan-European collaborative initiative to address cancer inequalities across Europe.