Neuroblastoma debate

Neil Parish leads a Parliamentary debate on the treatment of the rare form of child cancer, neuroblastoma, and the different responses from PCTs to requests to fund treatment.Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): It is a great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Osborne. I thank Mr Speaker for granting me this debate on primary care trust funding for neuroblastoma. I am delighted to welcome the Minister with responsibility for care services and look forward to hearing his response to these grave matters.Neuroblastoma is a rare solid tumour cancer that tragically occurs in very young children and infants, primarily under the age of five years. It accounts for 17% of cancer deaths in children. Only 100 children are diagnosed with neuroblastoma each year in the UK. That is a blessing in itself, but it is of little comfort to the parents coping with the emotional strain of knowing that their child must face the long, hard battle against cancer.The disease is caused by the development of cancerous cells in neural crest nerve cells, which play a key role in the development of the sympathetic nervous system. Most neuroblastomas begin in the abdomen or adrenal gland, next to the spinal cord or in the chest. In nearly 70% of children diagnosed, the disease has metastasised, which means that it has spread to other parts of the body. That makes it a particularly hard cancer to treat. The disease commonly spreads to the bones, and it can cause pain and difficulty in walking. Occasionally, it can affect the spinal cord, causing numbness, weakness and loss of movement in the lower part of the body.The symptoms depend on where the cancer starts and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. Initial symptoms can seem as innocent as tiredness, fever and loss of appetite. The vagueness of those symptoms makes neuroblastoma hard to diagnose in the early stages. Because neuroblastoma usually develops in the abdomen, the most common symptom is a lump in the stomach, which can make the child’s tummy swell, causing pain and great discomfort.Currently, the disease is treated through a variety of means, including surgery, chemotherapy and stem cell replacement. However, even after those treatments, high-risk neuroblastoma remains a major cause of death due to malignancy—patients have a two-year survival rate of approximately 20%. On top of that, the majority of high-risk neuroblastoma patients will experience disease relapse.It saddens me, then, that a young constituent of mine, named Sam Daubany-Nunn, is being denied funding by his local primary care trust to receive vital treatment in Germany that might well be curative. Sam was diagnosed with neuroblastoma at the age of 16 in July 2008. Such a diagnosis is quite unusual in someone as old as that. At the time, Sam was undertaking his GCSEs at Colyton grammar school. He went through eight hours of surgery, gruelling high-dose chemotherapy, a stem cell transplant and radiotherapy. Fortunately, he responded well to his treatment and, despite his illness, he excelled at school, achieving high grades in every subject. He went on to pursue his studies at sixth-form level. I met Sam and his family in Seaton in my constituency. They live in Uplyme, right on the border between Dorset and Devon. That is why Dorset PCT is in the dock today.Sadly, Sam became ill again in October 2010 and the family were informed that he had relapsed and that the neuroblastoma had come back. Sam went through six further courses of chemotherapy, two cycles of metaiodobenzylguanidine treatment at University college London and another stem cell transplant.Following that, a new treatment was added to the front-line protocol in the UK for all new children diagnosed. That new treatment is a targeted cancer therapy called monoclonal antibody therapy. Monoclonal antibodies are made in a laboratory and introduced to the body intravenously. They attach themselves to areas on the cancer cells. In this case, the antibodies bind to a protein called GD2 on the surface of neuroblastoma cells. Those antibodies operate as markers for the patient’s own immune system, encouraging it to attack and destroy cancerous cells. Without those markers, the immune system would not attack cancerous cells, as those tumours are part of the body.I was pleased to receive a letter from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health in response to a point that I raised with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House at business questions. The letter informed me that UK patients now get access to that treatment via the Cancer Research UK-supported European trial and that there is now wide clinical agreement that all children with high-risk neuroblastoma who might benefit should have access to monoclonal antibody treatment, as it increases survival rates to about 70%. That is extremely important. However, that clinical trial, led by Dr Penelope Brock from Great Ormond Street hospital, is not currently available in this country for relapsed cases—it is available for newly diagnosed cases only—and five or six patients a year would not meet the strict criteria for the trial.A second trial is being established with wider eligibility criteria, and it will include those children who, like Sam, have relapsed, but it will not be available until January 2012. That is an unworkable time frame for neuroblastoma sufferers who cannot wait for the UK trials to start. That is certainly the case for Sam. As a result, some parents have opted to take their children for treatment in Germany, which is currently piloting the new trial that will be available across England in 2012. That has been paid for by their local primary care trust after an individual funding request. However, Dorset primary care trust, near my constituency, has refused to support the funding request in Sam’s case. His family have been raising funds to pay the €80,000—a very big sum—that the treatment in Germany costs. Indeed, they have remortgaged their house. Hon. Members will understand that not everyone can take that action, which is why I am raising this matter with the Minister today in the House.Sam’s case is not isolated. After raising neuroblastoma funding in both the House and the media, I was contacted by a father whose son, Adam, suffers from neuroblastoma. Like my constituent, he is not eligible for the clinical trials in the UK and he made an individual funding request to Surrey primary care trust, which, like my constituent’s, was rejected. I understand that Adam’s father is now in contact with his local MP. I wish him and his family well and hope that he can receive the treatment that he needs.That contrasts with the decision made by NHS Northamptonshire’s individual funding request department in an almost identical case involving a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). I will take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend for all the assistance that he has given me in this regard. A young boy named Zach, whose case my hon. Friend has previously debated in Westminster Hall and who, like Sam, was not eligible for the clinical trial, was offered funding for monoclonal antibody treatment in Germany. In its letter to the family, the individual funding request department made this clear:“Given the timescales involved NHS Northamptonshire does not wish further obstacles to stand in the way of treatment and we have agreed that if necessary the cost of monoclonal antibody treatment in Germany would be covered by NHS Northamptonshire.”Fortunately for my constituent, there has been a last-minute change of heart by Dorset primary care trust. I received a call last night from the chief executive of Dorset PCT, who informed me that it had reviewed Sam’s situation and concluded that his was a unique case and that it would be unfair not to support the request for funding. That is fantastic news, and I extend my thanks to Paul Sly, the chief executive of Dorset PCT, for his assistance and for reviewing the original decision. However, I cannot help but feel that this case may not have had such a happy ending had I not been contacted by Sam’s family, written to the chief executive of Dorset PCT, raised the matter in the House, written on the subject in the press and finally secured this debate today.I emphasise that other families might not be able to raise the funds to go to Germany. It is essential that Samuel gets this treatment now; otherwise, his chances of survival will be hugely limited. That is why it is good to raise this matter. That raises the question of how two primary care trusts can come to two completely different conclusions and why some people should be denied potentially life-saving treatment in such an ad hoc manner. People should be treated fairly throughout the country, and although I realise that the PCTs probably have a great deal of autonomy, I urge the Minister to iron out the problems, if he can. We can then get to January and February next year, when monoclonal antibody treatment will be available in this country.Finally, I want to read from the conclusion of the letter from Paul Sly, the chief executive of NHS Dorset and of NHS Bournemouth and Poole:“Our local processes for individual treatment requests are set up to try to deal fairly with the vast majority of requests. However as we went through the request it became apparent that the only possible funding route for Samuel at this time was a referral to the National Cancer Drugs Fund. Unfortunately as the Fund only covers ‘drug costs’ they were unable to assist.In the light of the above, we carried out a further review of Samuel’s situation and concluded it is unique for three reasons…the treatment will be available in the UK later this year…he meets the trial inclusion criteria…he has to have the treatment within a specified time frame and cannot wait for the UK trial to start”.That is extremely important.I have put the issue on record. I hope that the problems faced by Samuel Daubany-Nunn and his family will reach a good conclusion. I reiterate to the Minister that there are not many such cases in the country, but it is extremely important that people receive this treatment when they need it, otherwise their chances of survival are very limited. I therefore ask the Minister to look at the general process. I am certain that NHS Dorset will honour the position that it has taken in its letter, but I am naturally keen to ensure that the Daubany-Nunns get help with funding Samuel’s treatment, because they very much need it, and it is only fair that people are treated similarly throughout the country.| Hansard