Cancer will kill some 750,000 people in the European Union (EU) this year, making it the area's biggest killer after cardiovascular disease. But the EU has no coordinated research approach, and most of its national programmes are small and fragmented.
Researchers, government officials and other interested parties will meet in Brussels on 19 September to try to figure out how this can change. Progress is being slowed, many say, by fragmentation, duplication of effort and a lack of harmonization between EU member states' different programmes.
“We can better tackle the complex and multiple causes of cancer by taking advantage of the diversity in Europe,” says Elio Riboli, an epidemiologist at the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyons, France, who is running a Europe-wide study of nutrition and lifestyle.
Patterns vary hugely across the continent: deaths from breast cancer in Denmark are much higher than in Portugal, for example, yet three times more Portuguese than Danish men die of stomach cancer.
Researchers face obstacles in setting up Europe-wide clinical trials or exchanging tissue samples. Big differences in training create further barriers to cooperation.
Françoise Meunier, director-general of the Brussels-based European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer, says that the number of multinational clinical trials is limited by the effort required to deal with each country's regulatory, ethical and insurance procedures. “Most clinicians cannot free up enough time,” she says.
Some nations are trying to restructure their own research. Last year, Britain set up a streamlined National Cancer Research Institute, and the country's two largest cancer charities merged this year (see Nature 416, 474; 200210.1038/416470a). On 9 September, the French government set up a commission to plan its national cancer research programme.
Next week's meeting, organized by the European Commission and the European Parliament, will discuss the establishment of a 'European cancer research area', which would help researchers in non-EU countries to work with their EU counterparts. Research commissioner Philippe Busquin has made cancer one of the priorities of the Commission's 2002–06 Framework programme, which allocates 400 million euros (US$390 million) to cancer research.
But some researchers will tell the meeting that they want to go further and start a truly European cancer initiative. “Cancer is too important to be left to national governments,” says Thomas Tursz, director of the Gustave-Roussy Institute in Paris.