UK cancer patients must have access to radiotherapy after Euratom exit, warn MPs

Workers install a component of a more than 220-ton-heavy proton accelerator on a foundation in the new building of the centre for radiotherapy of cancer patients 'Oncoray' at the campus of the medical university in Dresden, Germany, 06 February 2013. [EPA]

MPs have demanded guarantees that UK cancer patients will not lose access to new radiotherapy treatments because of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU’s treaty on nuclear materials.

In a report published on Monday (15 January), the European Scrutiny committee called on  UK ministers to set out “what arrangements will apply to the import of medical isotopes from the EU during any post-Brexit implementation period”.

The question of whether UK patients will lose access to new cancer treatments has exorcised the UK medical community ever since Prime Minister Theresa May set out the UK’s plans to leave the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom) in her letter to European Council President Donald Tusk which began the Article 50 process of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

UK supports staying in Euratom nuclear treaty after Brexit

A majority of British people oppose the government’s plan for the UK to leave the Euratom nuclear treaty after Brexit, a new survey has found.

Brexit Secretary David Davis has indicated that the UK will instead seek to set up its own nuclear regulator.

But that has prompted concerns about the possibility of new customs controls on the transport of radio isotopes, which is already tightly regulated.

In November, Dr. John Buscombe, President of the British Nuclear Medicine Society, told the House of Lords that each year close to a million patients in the UK receive radiotherapies or scans, around 80% of which use materials imported from EU manufacturers.

UK Energy Minister Richard Harrington had however “emphatically confirmed that the UK’s ability to import medical isotopes from the EU or the rest of the world will not be affected by withdrawal from Euratom”, noted MPs.

Oncologists and radiologists are worried about a repeat of the two year shortage in radio isotopes between 2008 and 2010 caused by shutdowns of supply reactors in Canada and the Netherlands which produce Molybdenum-99 – the isotope most commonly used in medicine. Around 90% of Molbdenum-99 and its decay product (Technetium-99m) is used in the medical interventions involving radioisotopes. It is not produced in the UK.

“I was working as a Breast Cancer surgeon during the Technetium shortage which lasted well over a year. During that time we were faced with having to ration bone scans to only the most urgent or worrying cases,” said Dr. Philippa Whitford MP, a member of the European Scrutiny committee.

The Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) has called for a transitional arrangement during which the UK would keep its current arrangements under Euratom after March 2019, giving time for a new agreement for nuclear cooperation to be struck with the EU.

For its part, the Exiting the EU committee will hold its own hearing with Cancer Research UK at its Cambridge University headquarters on Thursday (18 January) to discuss the UK’s continued involvement in EU-wide agencies and access to research funding post-Brexit.

The Brief: Radioactive Ga Ga

Brexit means leaving the EU’s nuclear treaty. But as massive protests in Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands showed yesterday, the UK is playing with an emotional and high-risk issue it may not truly understand.