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Roche defends involvement in cancer campaign

Critics say funding of Cancer United is little more than a marketing exercise

A huge row has erupted over Roche's involvement in a pan-European campaign pushing for equal access to cancer care across the EU.

The Cancer United initiative, launched in Brussels last week, has brought together representatives from patient groups, healthcare professionals, the pharma industry, researchers, policy makers in cancer research and care, to call upon the European Commission to develop a Europe-wide cancer strategy as well as comprehensive national cancer plans in EU member states.

However, it is Roche's involvement which has made the headlines, with critics arguing that funding of the campaign by the Swiss maker of oncology products constitutes little more than a thinly-veiled marketing exercise.

According to a report in the Guardian, the campaign was `entirely funded by Roche'. The article also said the company's PR firm, Weber Shandwick, which is the campaign secretariat, has been `heavily promoting' it to clinicians and journalists.

Leading cancer specialist, John Smyth, professor of medical oncology at the Western General hospital in Edinburgh, who heads up the Cancer United campaign, branded concern's over Roche's sponsorship ìridiculousî.

ìUnfortunately, people have chosen to suggest that this is subliminal advertising for Roche,î he said. ìThe thought that the leading people I have got involved in this would be party to a sleazy promotional activity is frankly absurd and insulting. It is wrong to suggest that I would change my prescribing practice because of the involvement of Roche.î

He added that one of the main objectives of the campaign was to look at how European countries could create national cancer plans to make best use of their often limited resources.

Catherine Steele, head of public policy for Roche, also defended the company's involvement in Cancer United. ìWe've been very transparent in providing a grant to Cancer United,î she said. ìThe campaign is about cancer care for patients. It is not about marketing for Roche.î

Despite these assertions, question marks have arisen over the tactics employed to get high profile figures to back the campaign. Labour MP, Dr Ian Gibson, who chairs the all-party parliamentary group on cancer, told Channel 4 News that he had been ìnaiveî to get involved with Cancer United and insisted that he was never told that Roche was the sole funder of the campaign.

Dr Gibson, who has since pulled out of any involvement with the campaign, said he had been invited to make some positive comments about it on film during the Labour party conference in Manchester.

One of the UK's leading cancer experts, Professor Michel Coleman from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the Guardian he had ìgrave concernsî about Cancer United, and criticised one study that is central to the campaign. The research, from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, links patient survival to the amount their government spends on drugs.

He said the report represents ìwoefully simplistic researchî and argued that ìfor most cancers, higher survival results from earlier diagnosis and a combination of expert surgery and/or radiotherapy, as well as from the use of cancer drugs.î

30th September 2008

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