THE UK's largest cancer charity has warned the Covid pandemic means it is unlikely to begin any new clinical trials until next year, in the latest blow to cancer patients.

In an email to patients and volunteers this week, Cancer Research UK executive Ian Walker said "very few (if any) new cancer trials will be starting in the next six to 12 months".

Mr Walker, who is the charity's director of clinical, population and early detection research, warned that there would be " significant challenges in returning to the pre-Covid-19 levels of cancer research activity in the NHS".

Clinical trials testing new drugs are often a lifeline for patients who have exhausted the treatment options available on the NHS.

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But since the coronavirus outbreak struck, patient recruitment via the NHS has been halted and work to set up new trials suspended across the UK.

Some patients taking part in existing trials have also seen their treatment withdrawn.

Mr Walker wrote: "Throughout the pandemic there has been a significant reduction in cancer diagnoses and delays in cancer treatment, this may mean that when trial activity can re-start, it will be at a slower pace initially.

"Furthermore, as the UK moves to the next phase of this pandemic, the delivery of NHS cancer services is likely to change over the coming months with the establishment of ‘Covid-free’ cancer hubs, and the implications of this on research delivery are not yet known.

"Based on our discussions with the clinical research community, it is likely that very few (if any) new cancer trials will be starting in the next six to12 months."

He said the charity would not accept applications for new clinical research funding in the autumn, adding that "given the unprecedented circumstances, we feel it is prudent to prioritise our efforts and resources on the current clinical portfolio".

It comes after the charity - which funds around half of all cancer research in the UK - confirmed in April that it was cutting research funding by £44 million due to a plunge in fundraising income amid the Covid crisis.

Hundreds of staff have been furloughed and the executive team have also seen their pay cut by 20%.

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Lesley Stephen, 54, from Edinburgh was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer in 2014 and given months to live in 2015.

However, her life was saved when she joined a clinical trial and had an unusually strong response to the drug being tested.

Ms Stephen, who has previously worked in patient engagement for Cancer Research UK - but is not currently involved with the charity - said members of the cancer community were stunned by the latest development.

She said: "I'm fairly shocked at the long-term impact of Covid on cancer research, and its implications for patients.

"No new clinical trials for 6-12 months means a huge steps backwards in terms of Britain's research capability, and probably many more cancer patients dying sooner than they otherwise would because they can't access a trial."

She questioned why existing trials would have to resume more slowly when there was "an urgent need to catch up on all fronts".

With clinical trials stopped, the pandemic has also seen Cancer Research scientists volunteering on the frontline in Covid testing hubs, and some Cancer Research UK laboratories and equipment repurposed for virus testing and other Covid-related research.

This includes supporting the UK Coronavirus Cancer Monitoring project, which is seeking to identify and learn from the outcomes of all cancer patients who contract the infection.

Ms Stephen added: "My issue is also that many people raise money for CRUK, but for cancer and not Covid research.

"165,000 people a year die of cancer, and I know that coronavirus is awful and terrifying, but there must be thousands of researchers around the world already working on that.

"It feels like we're a bit of collateral in all of this."

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Professor Karol Sikora, the Scotland-born oncologist who heads up the Rutherford Health network of cancer centres, said he was shocked by the decision to delay new trials. 

He said: "Just to give up and say 'we're not going to do anything until 2021' is defeatism of the worst sort.

"I'm shocked that Cancer Research UK would say that, I really am.

"It reflects a bad judgment about what's going to happen - it's not going to be as bad as they think. 

"You can always adjust: you carry on planning for the worst but keep going and always have back ups in place if things do get bad. 

"Everyone is using the worst case scenario of a second wave.

"I'm much more optimistic because I really think the virus is weakening, but the NHS is painfully slow to get back to normal."

Earlier this month the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh reported that 87 per cent of its fellows across the UK who are cancer specialists had stopped or significantly reduced cancer operations due to the risk of potentially deadly complications if patients became infected in hospital.

Some patients who would normally be offered chemotherapy are receiving alternative - and potentially less effective - treatments instead because the virus is particularly dangerous to people with weakened immune systems.

Breast, bowel and cervical screening has also been paused across the UK, with the number of patients being referred by GPs for tests due to possible cancer symptoms currently 44% lower than normal in Scotland, leading to fears that thousands of people will be diagnosed late.

The situation has prompted calls from experts and charities, including Cancer Research UK, for the NHS to create 'Covid-free' spaces where the risk of the virus is minimised through blanket virus testing of staff and bans on admissions for patients infected with Covid.

In a statement to the Herald, Mr Walker said a "small number" of trials were resuming, but stressed that creating "safe spaces" in hospitals for cancer patients and protecting staff from exposure would be vital before research could return to normal.

He said: “Staff are being supported to prepare for returning to their research roles, and cancer services are adapting to the new environment. This does mean, that the way trials are run might change.

"For example, it is vital that patients are treated for cancer in safe spaces where the risk of exposure to Covid-19 is minimised. This means there has to be adequate Covid-19 testing and supply of PPE.

"Adapting to these new measures, as well as ensuring the appropriate NHS resources and requirements are in place to support new working practices, means that trials may have to resume at a slower pace, at first.

"We are also aware that some patients are understandably scared and nervous about travelling and visiting hospitals, which is also an important consideration in re-starting trials.

“Throughout this uncertainty, we are working hard to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on our clinical research activity, so patients are able to safely participate in clinical trials and have access to treatment options.

"To ensure we can prioritise our effort and resources, we have taken the difficult decision not to fund any new trials this autumn, and to instead focus our limited resources on the ongoing trials we support."