Psychosocial Oncology Research Faces Uncertain Future in UK

In November, the cancer charity Cancer Research UK announced its research strategy for the next 5 years. Included in it are goals to increase research on the early diagnosis of cancer; invest more in research on radiotherapy and surgery; and devote more research to cancers of the lung, pancreas, and esophagus. But for some researchers, the strategy is notable for what it doesn’t include: Cancer Research UK has decided to discontinue funding research in several areas it has long supported, including psychosocial oncology.

The decision has “created seismic shockwaves” throughout the psychosocial oncology research community, said Lesley Fallowfield, Ph.D., director of the Cancer Research UK Sussex Psychosocial Oncology Group at the University of Sussex. At the same time, it means that she and her colleagues have to start looking for new funding in an uncertain economy. “With the current economic gloom and doom, this is not a good time to be looking for other funders,” Fallowfield said.

Broadly defined, psychosocial oncology investigates the psychological, behavioral, and social aspects of cancer. Likewise, research in this area is broad, even among the programs supported by Cancer Research UK. Fallowfield and her group have done research in several aspects of psychosocial oncology but primarily specialize in teaching effective communication skills to practicing oncologists. Galina Velikova, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Psychosocial Oncology and Clinical Practice Research Group at the University of Leeds, specializes in patient-reported outcomes of symptoms and emotional distress among cancer patients. Michael Sharpe, M.D., director of the Psychological Medicine Research Group at the University of Edinburgh, and his group do large-scale clinical trials on managing depression in cancer.

Cancer Research UK will continue to support all three programs until their grants run out, which is in 2011 for Fallowfield and 2012 for Sharpe and Velikova. Their program grants range from about £1.7 million to about £5 million over 5 years, “a mere blip”—less than 1%—of the organization’s total research budget, Fallowfield said.

Published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, May 26, 2009. Read the rest of this article online.