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Brexit Brings Uncertainty to Global Cancer Research and Care

Allie Strickler @Alliejayes
Published: Tuesday, Jul 05, 2016

Myles Allen

Myles Allen

The shockwaves created by the UK’s vote to secede from the European Union (EU) are likely to reverberate for years to come, particularly in the field of oncology.

Because of the lack of precedent for such a significant event, the consequences of Brexit can only be speculated upon for now, but healthcare professionals have good reason to be concerned for the future of their industry.

According to The Lancet Oncology, new clinical trials in cancer research will likely be delayed for some time as sponsors realign their organizations and restructure how funds are allocated to both the EU and the UK. Thus, advancements in treatment for cancer patients are almost certain to remain stagnant in years to come.

If Britain fails to keep up with modern research, the nation will likely lose considerable influence in the world of healthcare. Moreover, while the headquarters for the European Medicines Agency (EMA) are currently located in London, they will presumably move to a different nation in the EU following Britain’s departure.1 Many in the field believe that such a shift represents a gradual but inevitable loss of an esteemed reputation that the UK will eventually lose in healthcare.

Even if the EMA does not eventually move out of the UK, Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is also likely to face difficult times when it comes to maintaining its current roster of elite medical professionals, many of whom were originally trained in the EU.

“My main concern in the big picture is potential damage to the UK’s reputation as a destination for top-flight researchers,” said Myles Allen of the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute.

Allen worries that the UK’s divorce from the EU will negatively affect the nation’s ability to recruit the best of the best in the field—another damaging blow to the UK’s standing in healthcare.2

These changes would not only damage Britain’s prominence in the industry, but they would also lead to a long-term dearth of quality treatment options for patients.

For example, following Brexit, British patients will not be able to benefit from important initiatives like the European Cancer Patient’s Bill of Rights, which essentially promises citizens battling cancer the right to the best healthcare available in the EU.3

Brexit supporters had also claimed in their campaign that the secession would actually bring more money to the NHS because it would no longer owe the EU £350 million a week as part of its membership in the union. The pledge was even prominently displayed on the campaign’s “battle bus,” promising a bright and hopeful future for the nation.4

However, leading Brexit campaigner Iain Duncan Smith quickly backtracked on this promise.5

“I never said that during the course of the election,” said Smith. “The £350 million was an extrapolation of the £19.1 billion—that’s the total amount of money we gave across to the European Union. What we actually said was a significant amount of it would go to the NHS…There was talk about it going to the NHS, but there are other bits and pieces like agriculture, which is part of the process. That is the divide up. It was never the total.”

Unfortunately, Smith is right; approximately half of the money that Britain currently gives to the EU is eventually funded back to the country through subsidies for agriculture, research grants, and infrastructure needs. That money is already committed and therefore cannot be reallocated to the NHS.6

While the potential consequences of Brexit are already stirring tension, nothing is certain for the future of both Britain and the EU. Even as the news of Britain’s exit begins to sink in and take shape, prospective prime minister Boris Johnson rocked the boat once more when he removed himself from the race to be the next Conservative leader.7

Some speculate, perhaps, that Brexit could be cancelled before it even truly happens. Many analysts, including Secretary of State John Kerry, are already speculating that the vote could be reversed.8

Regardless of how Brexit ultimately pans out, both Britain and the EU are sure to face uncertain times overall, especially in the field of cancer research, as everyone attempts to rebuild these broken pieces.



  1. Reality check: What might Brexit mean for medicines and clinical trials [news release]? BBC News; June 22, 2016. Accessed June 29, 2016.
  2. Why Brexit freaks out so many scientists [news release]. National Geographic; June 24, 2016. Accessed June 29, 2016.
  3. European Bill of Cancer Patients’ Rights. European Cancer Patient Coalition. Accessed June 29, 2016.
  4. Brexit’s broken promises: Health care, immigration, and the economy [news release]. CNNMoney; June 27, 2016. Accessed June 29, 2016.
  5. Iain Duncan Smith backtracks on leave side’s £350m NHS claim [news release]. The Guardian; June 26, 2016. Accessed June 29, 2016.
  6. How much does the EU really cost Britain [news release]? CNNMoney; June 2, 2016. Accessed June 29, 2016.
  7. Boris Johnson rules himself out of Conservative leader race [news release]. BBC News; June 30, 2016. Accessed June 30, 2016.
  8. Could Brexit be canceled? Here’s how vote might be reversed [news release]. London, UK: NBC News; June 29, 2016. Accessed June 29, 2016.

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