Cancer Research: All-island Cooperation

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly am 3:30 pm ar 17 Mehefin 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin 3:30, 17 Mehefin 2024

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes the recent report from the All-Island Cancer Research Institute on the state of the oncology research industry; recognises the need for greater cooperation in cancer research on the island of Ireland; further recognises that clinical experts in this field have stated that developing oncology innovation clusters, by pooling resources, could help to drive research and investment in oncology, domestically and internationally; calls on the Department of Health to engage meaningfully with the Department of Health in Dublin to consider opportunities for increasing North/South cooperation in delivering innovative research into cancer prevention, treatments and interventions on the island; and further calls on the Minister of Health to subsequently update the Committee for Health on that engagement.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for the debate. The proposer of the motion will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. As an amendment has been selected and is published on the Marshalled List, the Business Committee has agreed that 15 minutes will be added to the total time for the debate. Please open the debate on the motion.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

[Translation: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.]

Over 50,000 people across Ireland are diagnosed with cancer every year, with one in two people likely to have cancer during their lifetime. That is particularly important, given that we have a growing ageing population, with people living longer. Due to innovation and research, however, cancer survival rates have doubled in the past 40 years, with new and more innovative treatments and technologies being developed to help diagnose and treat cancers and extend life expectancy for many people.

(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr Blair] in the Chair)

Here in Ireland, we have huge talent and expertise in life and health sciences and cancer research. Therefore, we have a real opportunity to be world leaders in the field. Operating as two separate jurisdictions has major drawbacks, and we need to realise our full potential through collaboration and coalescence on an all-island basis in order to move at pace in research and the development of innovation in cancer care. Professor Mark Lawler is a highly regarded and well-known scientist, with over 30 years of experience in cancer research. He has outlined the need to supercharge cancer research, which he firmly believes will improve cancer care. He has been leading the way through his work in establishing the eHealthHub for Cancer, bringing together the cancer community across Ireland to work together on cancer research through the use of data. That is just one example of the innovation that is happening, North and South.

The All-Island Cancer Research Institute's (AICRI) recent report on all-island oncology research strongly affirms the benefits of that approach for a number of reasons. For one, it is clear that cancer does not recognise borders. We must take the politics out of healthcare and do what will help us to achieve the best outcomes for all our patients. Ireland, North and South, has over 120,000 people employed in the life and health sciences sector. Some of its biggest growth is in the area of precision oncology, which focuses on cancer treatments that are tailored to individual patients. That has significantly enhanced cancer management, but also has the potential to revolutionise cancer care across our island.

We have 172 oncology and digital health companies operating across Ireland, the majority of which are home-grown firms that also operate on the global stage. As well as that, some of the most prestigious universities in the world are providing us with a significant advantage in oncology research. One of those is the Patrick G Johnson Centre for Cancer Research at Queen's University Belfast. I am delighted that, next week, the Health Committee will visit Queen's University jointly with the Oireachtas Committee on Health to learn more about the facility and the importance of all-island research. I really look forward to that, particularly on the back of today's debate.

The AICRI report describes how the development of an all-island innovation cluster would bring together academia, industry and healthcare professionals. That would undoubtedly be a game changer for cancer research and care. It would also drive inward investment to the sector, further enhancing the possibilities in cancer research, and ultimately improving our ability to understand and find treatments for various cancers. Increased collaborative working like that will benefit everyone on our island. We already see how well it works when we look at the North West Cancer Centre at Altnagelvin and the children's cardiology unit at St Vincent's Hospital in Dublin, both of which provide life-saving care to patients from all corners of Ireland.

We do not need to reinvent the wheel. We have access to all the tools. We just need to think strategically and pool our resources for the benefit of all our citizens. As we look at the huge pressures on our health service, particularly through the cancer waiting lists, in the context of major financial challenges, it is abundantly clear that we need to think outside the box to deliver for patients. Bringing together the existing strengths and synergies from both North and South will give us the best opportunity to save lives and potentially slow down the devastation that this cruel disease causes to so many families. Very few of us in the Chamber will not have been touched by it in some way. We must use every resource available. We cannot be short-sighted when it comes to life and death. I was very encouraged by the Minister's words in his first address to the Assembly when he said that he wishes to focus on cancer during his term of office. I sincerely hope that, as part of that work, he will engage with his counterparts in the South to progress this crucial opportunity, which will inevitably transform cancer care for generations to come.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP 4:00, 17 Mehefin 2024

I beg to move the following amendment

Leave out all after "cooperation in cancer research" and insert: "with both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland; further recognises that clinical experts in this field have stated that developing oncology innovation clusters, by pooling resources, could help to drive research and investment in oncology, domestically and internationally; calls on the Department of Health to engage meaningfully with the respective Departments of Health in London and Dublin to consider opportunities for increasing both east-west and North/South cooperation in delivering innovative research into cancer prevention, treatments and interventions in the British Isles; and further calls on the Minister of Health to develop a Northern Ireland cancer research strategy and subsequently update the Committee for Health with a progress report on this issue."

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

You will have 10 minutes in which to propose the amendment and five minutes in which to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who are called to speak will have five minutes.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Before we get on to the meat of the amendment, I want us to focus on the real enemy here, and that is cancer, which affects everyone, regardless of race, creed or religion. Macmillan Cancer Support estimates that cancer kills 167,000 people throughout the United Kingdom every year. That is a colossal death toll. In proposing our amendment, we fully recognise that there is clearly work to be done across all jurisdictions in the British Isles: in Northern Ireland, on mainland Great Britain and in the Republic of Ireland. I hope that, on this subject, we can park the more political aspirations and, whatever our views, welcome cooperation across those jurisdictions in the fight against cancer. Our amendment, without doing damage to the original motion, simply includes the crucial east-west dimension with Great Britain. We firmly believe that cooperation and collaboration is the best way forward. In tabling this amendment, we also felt that we should not lose focus on global cooperation and the benefits that we get from being part of UK-wide structures and networks with global outreach.

Last week, at the Cancer Focus event, I had the opportunity to speak to Professor Mark Lawler, and we discussed some aspects of cooperation on cancer research. Professor Lawler impressed on me the importance of a cancer research strategy for Northern Ireland. Minister, I hope that you take cognisance of that. I know that that is suggested in the broader Northern Ireland cancer strategy, but, as the Queen's University briefing paper for this debate indicates, we need to see cancer research as a necessity and not a luxury that we can dispense with or do without. The cancer strategy proposes implementing the recommendations of the oncology service transformation project and extending acute oncology services throughout the weekend. Those are practical things that we can do fairly simply. The strategy also supports increasing the per capita spend on cancer research and the number of Northern Ireland patients participating in clinical trials and receiving access to novel therapeutic agents and techniques. It recognises that we cannot offer every service that we might wish to offer in Northern Ireland and that patients will sometimes need to travel for more specialist services. Sadly, that can too often be the case for children's oncology services.

As the proposer of the motion said, one in two people will develop cancer during their lifetime. That is a frightening statistic. While there are huge opportunities, North and South, the battle against cancer is a worldwide one. Our experts need to share and collaborate with their colleagues and counterparts throughout the world. For an issue in which research and innovation are so critical, in Northern Ireland, we benefit from access to the very best academic institutions. We are fortunate that, in the United Kingdom, our universities regularly feature in the lists of the top 10 universities in the world. Northern Ireland is part of the UK Clinical Research Collaboration (UKCRC), a partnership of the main stakeholders that fund clinical research in the United Kingdom.

In tabling the amendment, we want to recognise that we share research on the complexity of cancer across all tumour sites not just north and south of the border but throughout the United Kingdom and, indeed, the world. We should also recognise that Northern Ireland is recognised internationally for the quality of cancer research here, which translates into better care for cancer patients delivered through the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen's University. Cancer research at Queen's has led to a number of breakthrough treatments, including the DNA sequencing of tumours of 70% of all Northern Ireland cancer patients, which enables novel cancer therapies to be more available to more than 4,000 cancer patients a year in Northern Ireland. The breakthrough treatments include practice-changing radiotherapy trials, including one that reduced the number of radiotherapy cycles needed to treat prostate cancer from 39 to five. That means not only much greater convenience for patients but considerable savings in time and funding for the NHS. Such treatments are exceptional in such a small place as Northern Ireland.

We should not forget the development of the future medicines institute initiative, a joint vision of the Northern Ireland Precision Biomarkers and Therapeutics Consortium, which is a group involving industry and our universities. Through that, we can develop new technologies, drive productivity and de-risk research and development efforts through collaborative working and the sharing of technologies and resources. Under the planned model, the future medicines institute will operate as a research hotel that allows companies to gain rapid access to shared resources. The Belfast region city deal represents a timely and neat fit with that kind of visionary work. In Northern Ireland, companies are also able to tap into a wealth of experience from academics to get better access to biobanks, product development or analysis and to equip researchers with future skills. The overall goal is to generate new therapies and diagnostics through an integrated pipeline.

To conclude, we have to recognise that cancer knows no boundaries, be they social, political or geographic, and that the world of research is getting increasingly smaller with greater collaboration across the world. As one who, for many years, was involved with the Horizon project — from my time in the European Parliament — I understand the benefits of research on a global scale as well as research, North and South, and within the United Kingdom. In commending the amendment to the House, I hope that Members will recognise that the intention is not to damage the motion but to widen it and give voice to all the types of collaboration and research that we should be looking at in the fight against cancer.

Photo of Danny Donnelly Danny Donnelly Alliance

I welcome today's debate, and I thank the Sinn Féin Members for tabling the motion and the DUP Members for tabling the amendment. We will support both.

In Northern Ireland, almost 10,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every year, which is over 20 people every day. With our growing and ageing population, more of us will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in our life. It is particularly concerning that, according to research from Queen's University and the Northern Ireland Cancer Registry (NICR), there was, between 1993 and 2019, a 20% increase in cancers diagnosed in people aged 18 to 49. In addition to that frequency, a greater number of cancers are being diagnosed at an early age. With that in mind, the new Health Minister's urgent priority must be the full implementation of the cancer strategy and all its objectives. I welcome his comments about his commitment to the issue of cancer.

The motion asks us to note the recent All-Island Cancer Research Institute report, and I recommend it to all Members. The report calls for a number of actions, and its recommendations are largely based on greater all-Ireland cooperation. In many respects, closer cooperation between the two jurisdictions on this island makes sense, and there is already a desire for cooperation outside the political sphere, including with academics from various further education institutions and with many industries that are based on the island, particularly in the Republic.

The report's main recommendation is for an all-island oncology innovation cluster, taking in experts in various fields from both sides of the border for them to play a key role in further developing oncology research and development. That could harness both countries' strengths. As the report highlights, Northern Ireland has strengths in its indigenous companies and in digital health and diagnostics, while the Republic of Ireland has strengths in digital infrastructure and drug manufacturing. The cluster would need to be accompanied by supportive infrastructure, such as national biobanking infrastructure, building on the Northern Ireland Biobank model.

The report also calls for increased research and development funding, which is important, given that both parts of Ireland lag behind the rest of Europe in R&D funding. Potential funding sources include the EU's PEACE PLUS programme and the Irish Government's Shared Island Fund and Project Ireland 2040.

As the motion states, much of that depends on direct engagement between the Departments of Health here and in Dublin, and the mechanisms are already in place for cross-border cooperation, including the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC). As a member of the Health Committee, I reiterate the motion's call for the Minister to update the Assembly and, in particular, the Health Committee on his engagement with the Irish Government on advancing the report's recommendations. As the Chair of the Health Committee mentioned, we have a joint visit with the Oireachtas Health Committee to the Queen's University Centre for Cancer Research next week. I look forward to that.

I will now address the amendment. We welcome any cooperation and meaningful engagement with the intention of advancing research into cancer prevention and treatment across these islands. Cooperation on an east-west basis should be promoted, not least because of the necessary funding that Westminster must provide. It should be a priority for not just the Minister of Health but the MPs who will represent Northern Ireland in the next Parliament. The report that we are discussing today specifically relates to North/South cooperation, and equivalent research on east-west cooperation would be welcome.

For those reasons, we are content to support the Sinn Féin motion and the DUP's amendment. They have a similar objective: improving cooperation between us and other jurisdictions in the UK and Ireland for the important purpose of improving and developing cancer research.

Photo of Tom Elliott Tom Elliott UUP

I welcome today's debate. Cancer is something that affects every family in the community. Cancer research is a significant aspect of efforts to improve the lives of many. It goes without saying that cancer is one of our greatest health challenges. It causes immense concern and suffering and, sadly, cuts short far too many lives.

The fact that cancer is wholly indiscriminate and can affect anyone in the population, from the oldest to the youngest, means that it is a particularly cruel and unrelenting disease.

As we stand here today, improvements in cancer outcomes are still unacceptably slow, but, importantly, we also need to consider the huge gains that have been made. Even though record numbers of people are diagnosed each year, huge improvements have been made over recent decades. More and more people survive a cancer diagnosis. We are in an era of constant advances, new drugs and cutting-edge treatments. Every day in Northern Ireland, people beat cancer, but there is much more that we can be do, and that is where the ongoing focus on research and development comes in. There is science and data today that none of us could have imagined in the not-too-distant past, but it needs to be effectively harnessed.

Northern Ireland has long been recognised as a global leader because of its sheer brilliance in cancer research. Thanks to some of the incredible pioneering work undertaken locally, countless lives have been saved in the community. Despite the difficult challenges facing cancer services across Northern Ireland, more types of cancer are being detected, with many others prevented from developing in the first place. Where cancer is confirmed, treatments are increasingly targeted and effective, but, as I have said, there is much more we can do. We need to drive that progress even faster, and I have no problem in saying that every avenue should be pursued, including the all-Ireland cooperation and the east-west cooperation that has been referenced. Indeed, from evidence the House has received, it is my understanding that Northern Ireland is already closely linked with research developments in the United Kingdom, and, because of the difference in population, the United Kingdom is quickly establishing itself as a global leader in cancer research.

Cancer does not recognise borders, and, in our efforts to tackle it, we must not allow the borders to become a barrier. I am glad that, thankfully, in Northern Ireland, there is regular cross-border work and collaboration, not least in the incredible work of the North West Cancer Centre, but there is more to be done, and, working in cooperation with academia, commercial industry and government, we must leave no stone unturned, and that includes cooperation with all our nearest neighbours.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:15, 17 Mehefin 2024

I pay tribute to the many people who work tirelessly to eradicate this disease from our community. Whilst Northern Ireland is known for many things — we have lots of natural landscapes and iconic structures that automatically make us think of home — there is one building that will not feature in any of the advertisements, and it has already been referenced. It is nestled on the Lisburn Road as part of Queen's University, and it is the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research. The building is named for the former vice chancellor of Queen's University, who pioneered so much cancer research and tragically passed away in 2014.

How can we as legislators, from our different backgrounds and political views, support the researchers and clinicians who harness the ability to care for those with cancer and even cure what was once a death sentence? Cancer does not recognise political opinions or constitutional positions. The age profile of its victims is also indiscriminate, and, like other sicknesses, once it takes hold, it does so with relentless venom. A cancer diagnosis brings home one of the greatest fears that we as humans can have: to be told that our life might be limited. When people have cancer, they simply want to know whether they can be cured. Can they get rid of it? Can they get on with living rather than have to face dying?

Today's motion is welcome. It recognises that Northern Ireland is too small to challenge the scourge of cancer alone and understands that we are better when we work together to challenge cancer. The amendment suggests that we should work on a United Kingdom and all-island basis, and I take no issue with that. When I think of family members who received a cancer diagnosis, I would not have cared where the cure came from; I was just interested in them getting back to good health as quickly as possible.

Let us look for a moment at the reality of cancer. I will focus on skin cancer, the most common cancer across the North with over 4,000 new cases each year. The cost of treating the condition is £21 million per year and rising. At least 50% of skin cancers are preventable, yet the cost of treating skin cancer has increased 10 times in the last decade, due to the increasing cost of chemotherapy. Meanwhile, we have a skin cancer prevention strategy and action plan that expires in September. The previous Health Minister confirmed to me that the Department cannot review how effective that strategy was due to other pressing demands. It is anticipated that melanoma cases in the North will increase by 28% in the next 12 years, which will increase those costs by almost £4 million per year at least.

Where will the money come from to fund skin cancer prevention and the extra care that is needed? It is not missed to me that the motion comes from the party that has responsibility for finances and asks for better outcomes for cancer, which is managed by a strategy that is underfunded. We need to cooperate better and get the most out of those budgets. We know that the Patrick G Johnston Centre does groundbreaking research. Why can we not help to fund it, given that we do not do so at present? We have to do this to be able to fight cancer. If we focus on working with each other, as opposed to against each other, we should be able to help that fight against cancer. Let us get real about our budgets and do what we can.

All of us have known fellow MLAs, family and friends — kind, honest and compassionate people — who have died from this indiscriminate, conniving and cheating disease. As a personal reflection, in two weeks' time, it will be 29 years since my father died from cancer, which meant that, for most of my adult life, I did not know my father. That is a story that any one of us would be able to tell, because it impacts on us. Let us honour their memory and work together to end this disease once and for all.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

As Members have said this afternoon, cancer knows no borders. Our fight against it must be equally boundless. I had the pleasure recently of attending the Cancer Knows No Borders conference in Dublin. That was an inspirational event, bringing together researchers and cancer professionals from Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales and, most importantly, the United States of America. That was vital for that event.

By uniting our resources, expertise and knowledge, an all-island cancer strategy can help us to advance cancer research and provide better outcomes for patients across the island. Oncology clusters could bring together research institutions, healthcare providers and private industry. They could drive innovation, attract investment and create high-value jobs. Collaboration will ensure that the latest treatments and technologies are accessible to all people on the island and wider afield.

The success of the Ireland-Northern Ireland-US National Cancer Institute Cancer Consortium, born out of the Good Friday Agreement, shows what we can achieve together. That partnership has delivered high-quality research, including students from both sides of the border. However, there is much to do. Patients from the Republic of Ireland often travel to Northern Ireland for treatment but rarely vice versa. Aside from a few initiatives such as the Congenital Heart Disease Network and the North West Cancer Centre in Derry, there is minimal cross-border collaboration in cancer policy or research.

Currently, Northern Ireland's cancer statistics are among the worst in the UK as part of Europe. Increased cross-border collaboration could improve those standards. Meaningful engagement between the Department of Health in Northern Ireland and the Department of Health in Dublin is crucial. I encourage the Minister to take up that work. By working together, we should make significant strides in cancer prevention, treatment and care. Sharing knowledge and funding allows Governments to fight cancer together rather than competing against each other. It means committing to a future in which our collective efforts in cancer research are unified and strengthened. It is about improving health outcomes. It is about showing that we can unite for the greater good, beyond our political differences.

I thank the charities in Northern Ireland that work tirelessly outside of government to fundraise. Every penny that is raised supports patients or is used to buy equipment that the Government or Department cannot provide or to provide extra. The charities in Northern Ireland that fund research provide hundreds of thousands of pounds a year. We must pay tribute to the work that they do.

The Northern Ireland Cancer Registry does excellent analysis of cancer statistics across Northern Ireland. However, until we share those statistics meaningfully and regularly across the whole of the United Kingdom — this is on the point of the amendment — we will not be able to place Northern Ireland's cancer statistics in the UK context or the European context. I encourage the Minister to detail in his response the work that he will do to ensure that we knit our statistics into national and international statistics so that Northern Ireland's cancer statistics can stand up and be measured.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

I doubt that there is anyone on the island who has not been affected by cancer either directly or through a family member or friend being diagnosed with cancer. Great strides have been made in preventative measures, early diagnosis and the treatment of the disease, but a diagnosis of cancer is still guaranteed to strike terror into most individuals and create upheaval in families.

I know from personal experience how difficult it can be. My wife, Siobhan, was diagnosed with aggressive breast cancer in 2002. After surgery for a mastectomy, the next four years were spent attending appointments in the Bridgewater Suite in Belfast City Hospital for chemotherapy and Belvoir Park Hospital for radiotherapy. Of course, Siobhan had to deal with all of the side effects of those treatments, including sickness and nausea, hair loss, joint pain, weakness and extreme fatigue. At one stage, we had to go to Dublin in an ambulance because Siobhan needed a treatment for metastatic cancer; the cancer had spread to her brain. As she had already received a full blast of radiotherapy, any further radiotherapy had to be precise and targeted beams of radiation, which is known as "stereotactic radiotherapy". That was not available in the North at that time, so we had to travel to Dublin. Thankfully, that treatment is now available in the North. Unfortunately, my wife died in 2006. It is not an experience that I would like to repeat, especially having to tell a six-year-old that his mother had died during the night.

My story is by no means unique. Many people have gone through the same, and worse. It makes sense that, on such a small island, we should pool our resources not just to deliver treatment to those suffering from cancer and other diseases and ailments but to collaborate in research, innovation and best practice. If our objective is to reduce the number of people diagnosed with preventable cancers, improve survival and improve the experience of people diagnosed with cancer, collaborative working between North and South is not only desirable but should be an absolute imperative.

It should not stop there. Ireland has the skill set, technology and infrastructure to become a world leader in innovative cancer research, but there is also a need for greater collaboration on a global level with the US and the EU. There is absolutely no reason why this island cannot be a world leader in cancer research. There is still a long way to go to eliminate the scourge of cancer, but cooperation and collaboration are the only way to go.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance 4:30, 17 Mehefin 2024

Thank you. I call Mike Nesbitt, the Minister of Health, to respond. Minister, you have up to 15 minutes.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank all those who contributed to the debate. As many Members made clear, everybody knows somebody who has been affected — a friend, sibling, loved one, child, parent. I have spoken previously of my paternal grandmother and her slow, painful and, frankly, undignified death from bowel cancer. It impacts, as Mr McGrath hinted, on mental health, finances and life choices. It impacts on oh-so many others: family members who become carers; and parents who have to tell their six-year-old that their mother passed away in the night. To Mr Sheehan, I extend my total sympathy.

As Health Minister, I am committed to doing everything that is within my power to ensure that we can improve outcomes for those who are impacted on by cancer. "For better outcomes": those three words will be my mantra, my test and my yardstick to judge everything that I do. It is clear that Northern Ireland must find new and innovative treatments and care pathways if it is to improve outcomes for cancer patients. I am also clear that we cannot work in isolation if we want to achieve that aim. Collaboration is essential, and that includes collaboration with our neighbours, North/South, as well as east and west. For the avoidance of doubt, I have no political or ideological objection to North/South cooperation. As the Committee Chair said, we have to take politics out of healthcare, and I am determined to do that.

I am becoming familiar with the work of the All-Island Cancer Research Institute. It published in recent months, calling for greater cooperation across the island on cancer research, innovation and care. One of my first meetings as Minister was with Professor Lawler as we celebrated 30 years of the Cancer Registry. I am pleased to be able to advise that my Department is already working closely with the Department of Health in the Republic to look at ways in which we can cooperate to deliver cancer services. The North West Cancer Centre, as was mentioned, is a key example of that, with patients from the Republic accessing services there. Likewise, we have patients travelling to Dublin for specialist treatment.

We opened the North West Cancer Centre, at Altnagelvin Hospital, in 2016. It provides outpatient systemic anti-cancer therapy and radiotherapy services to approximately half a million people, including patients from County Donegal, with the centre treating approximately 250 people from the Republic every year. In June last year, Stephen Donnelly, the Minister for Health, announced funding for a new Daisy Lodge short-break centre in Cong, County Mayo, for children with cancer and their families. The centre will welcome 30% of its visitors from Northern Ireland, just as our centre in County Down welcomes 30% of its visitors from the Republic.

Cancer care should not be about politics. Decisions should be made on the basis of what is best for patients. We have a tripartite partnership between the Governments of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the National Cancer Institute in the United States. That partnership commits us to working together to reduce cancer incidents and mortality across the island of Ireland through cross-border and transatlantic collaborations in cancer research and education. It has been pivotal in many of the positive steps that we have taken against cancer on this island over the past 20 years. Collaborative cancer research has doubled, delivering cancer clinic trials to over 35,000 patients, North and South.

We have the All-Ireland NCI Cancer Consortium, which has established clinical trials infrastructure on this island; an all-island cancer atlas; and the training of some 500 clinicians, healthcare professionals and scientists. The consortium has funded fellowship programmes in cancer prevention and in health economics. There is also ongoing collaboration between the Northern Ireland Cancer Trials Network and Cancer Trials Ireland to increase the number of cancer trials available across the island.

Cancer research is another key element on which cross-border collaboration is vital. The Health Research Board in Ireland is partnering with the Health and Social Care research and development division and the US National Institutes of Health to provide funding to support cancer research. The All-Island Cancer Research Institute's recent paper, 'Landscape Review and Economic Potential of the Oncology and Allied Digital Health Sector on the Island of Ireland', calls for us to go further on North/South collaboration. Its proposed oncology innovation clusters would help to bring together all the key cancer research bodies in Northern Ireland and the Republic to consolidate knowledge, resources and infrastructure, with the combined goal of finding innovative approaches to gain better outcomes for patients here in Northern Ireland, on the island of Ireland and globally through their research.

The All-Island Cancer Research Institute states that the global oncology market is expected to reach $690·4 billion by the year 2032. Its advice is that research stakeholders in Northern Ireland and the Republic should work together, alongside public bodies and industry, to be a part of that growth. The institute has conducted comprehensive research, identifying all the key stakeholders in both jurisdictions.

Of course, those proposals to bring together the major players in industry, academia and the public sector are not new. We have city deals that seek to deliver exactly that, and it is important that we seek to use the leverage of those deals to bring about the greatest benefit for Northern Ireland. I know that my ministerial colleague Conor Murphy is fully aware of the potential economic benefits of having a thriving health industry operating in Northern Ireland. Organisations such as Invest NI and the Health Innovation Research Alliance Northern Ireland are working hard to develop the sector.

The economic benefits are, of course, important and of interest to everyone here. However, my priority is to deliver the best health and social care outcomes for the citizens of this place. Research by the institute emphasises the importance of population health and well-being to the economy. It calls for increased investment in oncology research and innovation. Regrettably, though, that comes at a time when my research and development budget is fully committed and I am facing calls to cut core health and social care services.

Proposals such as this are timely. As we are all fully aware, cancer services here are under enormous pressure. In the quarter ending in December 2023, 89% started treatment within 31 days of the decision to treat; the target, however, is 98%. Some 30% started treatment within 62 days of a referral, but the target for that is 95%. Of those referred on the breast pathways, 52% were seen within 14 days, but the target is 100%. Those figures are unacceptable and have been at unacceptable levels for too long. There have been many causes, including rising demand — for example, demand for chemotherapy has increased by 41% over the past five years and the number of first-diagnosis cancer patients treated has increased by 25% in the past 10 years — but we have also been slow to transform and accept new ways of working.

I do not underestimate the enormous pressure under which cancer staff and the wider HSC family are working. However, despite their best efforts, many parts of the current system are not ready to deliver the cancer services that we will require in the next five to 10 years, so we must be proactive and ambitious in delivering the equitable and resilient cancer services that the people of Northern Ireland deserve.

The cancer strategy published by the Department of Health in 2022 seeks to effect the transformational change that is needed to change how cancer is managed. That includes recognising the opportunities for collaboration across this island, with Great Britain and further afield to deliver better cancer care and better research and innovation. Although the strategy is not fully funded, we are already starting to see the benefits. We have rapid diagnostic centres that now deliver a vague symptom pathway across Northern Ireland. That is available for patients who have vague but worrying symptoms. They are typically patients who would have ended up with a late diagnosis and, consequently, very poor outcomes. Northern Ireland was the first part of the United Kingdom to commit to implementing an optimal care pathway for pancreatic cancer, and work is progressing well to implement that pathway. Reviews of haematological cancers and cancers affecting adolescents and young adults have also been completed, and recommendations are being implemented.

A cancer research strategy, as Mrs Dodds referred to, was a core commitment in the cancer strategy, and I assure the Member that it is under development. It will seek to establish the infrastructure required to support cancer research and innovation and translate that into improved outcomes for patients — a bench-to-bedside approach that focuses on what we need to address the biggest issues facing our cancer services. It will require additional investment, and, for that reason, I welcome the establishment of the All-Ireland NCI Cancer Consortium's research and innovation grant scheme, which will provide vital funds to support cancer research and innovation to institutions across the island of Ireland. I also commend the All-Island Cancer Research Institute for the work that it has done to bring together 10 universities across the island in a combined fight against cancer.

The way in which healthcare is delivered is continually changing. We must be ready to test and adopt innovative ways to treat and support those who are impacted by cancer. New technologies, new medicines and new techniques provide opportunities to measurably improve cancer survival rates while significantly improving the quality of life for cancer patients. It is essential that we grasp those opportunities.

Greater specialisation of cancer treatment means that it is increasingly important that we adopt a collaborative approach to delivering cancer services with our nearest neighbours. We need to enhance collaboration, North/South, east-west and globally. That is particularly important for cancers that require specialist treatment that cannot be delivered in Northern Ireland or for rare cancers where clinicians must have access to a larger population to develop and maintain the expertise to treat patients. Therefore, in answer to the motion, I am open to all discussions, ideas and proposals that enable us to deliver better cancer services for the people of Northern Ireland. Where collaboration with other jurisdictions can achieve that, we must take those opportunities, where possible, and, on my watch, we will do that.

I will touch on a couple of Members' comments. Danny Donnelly talked about cooperation with the Minister from the Government of Ireland, Stephen Donnelly. I am scheduled to have a meeting with Minister Donnelly before the end of the month, and I very much look forward to that. I hear what Mr Dickson says in his assessment of the state of cooperation with the Republic. "Could do better" might be a summary of his remarks, and I very much will take that on board. As for sharing the registry, yes, I think that data is absolutely critical in improving how we deal with the health service and getting better outcomes. We must base it on data while remembering that, behind every data set, there is the human cost of some disease, be it cancer or whatever.

I bring my remarks to a close by, once again, thanking the mover of the motion and those who tabled the amendment, which we support.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Thank you, Minister, for that response. I call Alan Robinson to make a winding-up speech on the amendment. Mr Robinson, you have up to five minutes.

Photo of Alan Robinson Alan Robinson DUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. There were 22,600 deaths from cancer in Northern Ireland from 2017 to 2021. According to Macmillan Cancer Support, cancer kills 167,000 people in the United Kingdom every year. The biggest killers are lung cancer and breast cancer, and, with 4,500 people dying from those cancers per year, we need to do better.

As has been referred to, we have a cancer strategy for Northern Ireland, which was launched in 2022. That strategy is a road map that aims to place Northern Ireland at the forefront of world-class cancer prevention and treatment. Its 60 recommendations should be the bedrock of how we progress cancer diagnosis and treatment in the Province. We must recognise that collaboration is key to unlocking further potential.

By pooling resources and expertise across the British Isles, we can accelerate progress on cancer prevention, treatments and interventions, but we certainly cannot restrict that to just one region.

I thank my colleague Diane Dodds for proposing the amendment. She spoke eloquently, as she always does. I have to applaud her for her understanding of the Health portfolio. I thank the many others who spoke in the debate. Liz Kimmins, Tom Elliott, Stewart Dickson and the Minister all referred to the North West Cancer Centre. I thank the staff for the work that is going on there. In a twist of fate, as I speak in the House, I have a parent who is undergoing treatment for cancer at Altnagelvin.

I urge the Department to engage meaningfully with its counterparts across the British Isles. I hope that the outworkings of the amendment, which widens the original motion, will include exploring opportunities for further cooperation and delivering groundbreaking research. Collectively, we can make strides in cancer care and improve patient outcomes to help to build a healthier future.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I call Linda Dillon to make the winding-up speech on the motion. You have up to 10 minutes.

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle.

[Translation: Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.]

I thank the Minister for coming here. I am one of the sponsors of this essential motion on cancer research, which was inspired by the recent report from the AIl-Island Cancer Research Institute.

The motion underscores the critical need for greater cooperation in oncology research on the island of Ireland and highlights the potential benefits of developing oncology innovation clusters. It calls for meaningful engagement between the Department of Health and its counterpart in Dublin. That collaboration aims to foster innovative research into cancer prevention, treatments and interventions. We are all well aware of the financial constraints that the Health Department has to work within, as were outlined by the Minister, and the challenges that he has, so we need to use what we have to the greatest benefit of the people. By pooling resources and expertise across the island, we can significantly enhance our research capabilities. Themes 1 and 2 of our cancer strategy would greatly benefit from collaborative working. Those themes engage prevention, diagnostics and treating cancer. By working together, we can tackle cancer more effectively, benefiting all people and aiming, as the Minister said, "For better outcomes". Those are his three words, and they are three good words to live your life by in the Chamber. At the end of the day, for people right across the island, that is what matters.

Ministers need to give leadership. We need to work together and support the professionals who are telling us that this will work and will save lives. By establishing oncology innovation clusters, we can attract both domestic and international investment, driving forward groundbreaking research and bringing us closer to finding cures and better treatments for cancer. We have already seen that through the Shared Island Fund. Greater cooperation can lead to standardised best practice, ensuring that all patients, regardless of their location, receive the highest quality of care. We have already seen the benefits of North/South collaboration to cancer research and care, as a number of Members who spoke previously outlined.

Many of us will have attended the recent launch of the Cancer Charities Coalition. It made clear that we need to do better for everyone who has cancer. It is right. It also highlighted the importance of collaborative working to ensure that we have better support and outcomes for people. I stand here having lost my mummy to stomach cancer. Unfortunately, by the time it was diagnosed, it was too late. I know that my story is one of so many, as has been displayed in the Chamber today. We heard from Stewart Dickson, who is, thankfully, a survivor and doing well. We heard from Colin McGrath, who, as a very young man, lost his daddy. We heard from my colleague Pat Sheehan, who had to deliver the devastating news to his little boy, who is now a grown man, but, from that age, he has never known life with his mummy. There are many others in the Chamber. I pay tribute to Alan. I hope that your parent does well. It is down to the work that is being done that, hopefully, many of our family members and the people whom we love and care about will survive.

As I said, I know that my story is only one of many. We must therefore use our resources effectively and work together on an all-island basis to deliver research and innovative diagnoses and treatments so that other families are luckier than mine and get a diagnosis and the most effective treatment. We have a dedicated and talented pool of people doing amazing work in our universities, communities and hospitals, and we need to give them the support to deliver for our people. Without research, we would not have the screening programmes that have saved so many lives. I will highlight the three recommendations in the report: an all-island oncology innovation cluster; supportive infrastructure; and funding for research and development. I look forward to engaging with the Minister, because, as he has said, there is a lot of good work going on. We need, however, to do more of it, to do it better and to fund it.

I thank all those who contributed to the debate. I do not need to go over everybody's points, because we are very much on the same page. I thank Diane Dodds for referring to Macmillan, which is a vital organisation for providing support to those who are suffering from cancer and to their families who are trying to support them through it. This Saturday, 22 June, I am doing a marathon walk — 26 miles — for Macmillan, and I am happy for anybody to sponsor me.


I am doing it along with hundreds and hundreds of people, some of whom will be patients who are perhaps undergoing cancer treatment, some of whom will be survivors and some of whom will be family members.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. Do you have a JustGiving page?

Photo of Linda Dillon Linda Dillon Sinn Féin

Yes. I will make sure that I put it up again this evening on my Facebook page. I absolutely will. Macmillan is a vital organisation. It needs our support, and we need to support it. It is important to point that out.

As the Chairperson of the Health Committee outlined, the Committee, jointly with the Oireachtas Health Committee, will be going to the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen's University. On that visit, we will see at first hand the work that is being done. A fantastic event was held here last year by Cancer Research that showcased some of its work on diagnostics, screening programmes and all the other amazing stuff that it is doing. We need to make sure that we work hard together to be able to implement those screening programmes, to be able to target them at where they are needed and to be able to have the diagnostics and, hopefully, the treatments and cures for the people who may, unfortunately, be future sufferers of cancer.

Finally, I must point out that we need to be looking at prevention, and research will help us with that. I thank Members for their support for the motion and the amendment.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

Thank you for your winding-up speech.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to. Resolved:

That this Assembly notes the recent report from the All-Island Cancer Research Institute on the state of the oncology research industry; recognises the need for greater cooperation in cancer research with both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland; further recognises that clinical experts in this field have stated that developing oncology innovation clusters, by pooling resources, could help to drive research and investment in oncology, domestically and internationally; calls on the Department of Health to engage meaningfully with the respective Departments of Health in London and Dublin to consider opportunities for increasing both east-west and North/South cooperation in delivering innovative research into cancer prevention, treatments and interventions in the British Isles; and further calls on the Minister of Health to develop a Northern Ireland cancer research strategy and subsequently update the Committee for Health with a progress report on this issue.

Adjourned at 4.53 pm.