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DH backs cancer vaccine research as landmark pharmacy screening pilot launches

The government has announced a new partnership to boost research into vaccines for cancer, as community pharmacies in Cornwall begin piloting a cancer screening service this month.

The Department of Health and Social Care (DH) announced a new memorandum of understanding with COVID-vaccine developer BioNTech on Friday (January 6) to “bring innovative vaccine research to England with the potential to transform outcomes for cancer patients”.

It said that “trials into vaccines for cancer and wider diseases will accelerate” following the “historic agreement with a leading biopharmaceutical firm to bring revolutionary research to England”.

“The agreement means cancer patients will get early access to trials exploring personalised mRNA therapies like cancer vaccines”, with trials set to begin as early as autumn 2023, it added.

Read more: The award-winning pharmacist revolutionising cancer care

Meanwhile, under a new pilot due to start in Cornwall this month, pharmacies will refer patients who repeatedly buy cough medicine or other medicines to get checked for cancer without the need to see a GP, NHS England (NHSE) said last month (December 30).

Pharmacies piloting the scheme will be expected to spot potential signs of cancer, which include coughing, chest pain and breathlessness that lasts for three weeks or more and changes in bowel habits or bloating, NHSE said.

It added that those “with a persistent cough, difficulty swallowing or blood in their urine who might not otherwise have sought help will be referred by their pharmacist to hospital for further tests”.


“Innovative new pilot”


Health minister Lord Markham said: “This innovative new pilot has the potential to help catch more cancers at an early stage, with pharmacists trained to spot concerning symptoms and refer patients directly for potentially lifesaving hospital tests.

“Not only could this benefit people who might not otherwise have asked for help, but it will also help ease pressures on GPs.”

Read more: C+D Award-winning pharmacy cancer training now available nationally

More than 11,000 pharmacies in England can now also access training to spot signs of cancer as part of a new drive to catch tumours earlier, NHSE said.

National Pharmacy Association vice-chair Nick Kaye said: “It’s great that community pharmacies will be helping to increase early cancer detection rates by spotting red flag symptoms and potentially saving the lives of patients.

“This further expands the clinical role of pharmacy teams and builds on the skills of a highly-trained pharmacist workforce who knows their patients well and sees them regularly.”


Services must be backed by funding


But chief executive of the Company Chemists Association (CCA) Malcolm Harrison said the organisation was “very concerned…that this cancer detection pilot and all other pharmacy services are at risk if the NHS is not prepared to inject urgently needed funding into the sector”.

Without this, “we will see the continued erosion of the service pharmacies can provide,” he added.

 The CCA also called on the NHS “to pause the recruitment of pharmacists into GP surgeries” and “to reconsider the scale of their ambition with regard to the future of community pharmacy”.

Read more: ‘Perhaps trust is pharmacy’s real prize with the cancer diagnosis pilot’

The number of referrals to pharmacies from NHS111 and GPs this year “is drastically below the number of patients the NHS says could be safely referred”, meaning it “is not a sustainable service”, it said.

NHSE first revealed it planned to launch a landmark pharmacy cancer screening pilot in June last year.

At the time, it said it would be funded, but details on this remain unclear.

And in July last year, C+D spoke to pharmacist Jackie Lewis, whose work in training pharmacy staff to spot “red flag” cancer symptoms in walk-in patients played a critical role in the recovery of cancer services post-pandemic.

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