UK's flagging clinical trial sector faces fresh challenge as National Cancer Research Institute set to close

The National Cancer Research Institute, a U.K. nonprofit bringing together oncology research and industry partners, is closing down after 22 years due to a lack of funding.

Fiona Driscoll, chairwoman of the charity, said “uncertainty in the wider economic and research environment has had an impact” on the decision, in a letter to colleagues released Monday. The organization worked with stakeholders last year to “produce a strategy fit for the future” but, ultimately, the NCRI couldn’t “resolve” a rickety funding model. 

“Reluctantly, therefore, the Board decided that the risk of operational failure was too great to continue,” Driscoll wrote. The NCRI will now work to nail down what assets it has left with respect to intellectual property and data and see if any existing partners can continue some of the organization’s work. 

It’s a decision that will likely have ripple effects throughout the U.K. just as government officials pledged new money to reinvigorate the country's flagging clinical trial infrastructure. The government passed a more than $800 million spending package earlier this year earmarked for the life science industry with a good chunk aimed at speeding up clinical trials. 

The institute's own story dates back to 2001 when it was launched in response to the National Health Service's cancer plan. At the time, the NCRI’s mission was set out as bringing together “all the key players in research in this country to identify where research is most needed and where it is most likely to contribute to progress.”

That same plan also described a goal of the NCRI as boosting the U.K.'s research into cancer genetics “with the aim of placing this country at the forefront in this rapidly evolving area.” But as Driscoll admitted today, corralling funding for research is competitive, and the NCRI was already playing second fiddle to Cancer Research UK, the world’s largest independent cancer researcher

Driscoll said in her letter that the wider cancer research environment had “matured significantly” since the NCRI's heyday and that much of the institute’s original goals had been achieved or taken up by business partners. That is, except for one critical measure: the launching of clinical trials. The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry reported in October that the number of phase 3 trials launched in the country per year fell by 48% from 2017 to 2021. 

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, for the country’s larger effort to accelerate the development of innovative new cancer therapies. BioNTech, for example, announced in January that it was partnering with the U.K. government to provide 10,000 personalized cancer therapies to patients by 2030.