JAPAN - To speed up development of drugs and other treatments for pancreatic and other cancers that are especially difficult to treat, three ministries will strengthen cooperation and streamline cancer research now conducted separately by each ministry, according to government sources.
In the new fiscal year, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry and the Economy, Trade and Industry Ministry will set up a joint forum to promote cancer research and present a general policy on research areas to be designated as high priorities.
The move is aimed at improving efficiency in the system for cancer research before Japan's version of the US National Institutes of Health, which will oversee medical research and development, launches in April 2015.
In the budget for the new fiscal year, the three ministries allocated ¥17.2 billion (S$0.2 billion) for expenses related to the joint effort.
The project will focus on such cancers as those of the pancreas and lungs, which are difficult to detect at an early stage and effectively treat. Brain tumours and childhood cancer are also included.
Pharmaceutical firms have been slow to work on research and development related to such cancers, as there are relatively few patients.
In line with the policy to be presented by the joint forum, the ministries will divide their roles in the effort, with the health ministry at centre stage. A programme leader who will preside over the entire research project will also be appointed.
Specifically, the health ministry, which conducts clinical research on patients, will draft a list of the anticipated problems in the development of a cancer treatment.
Based on the list, the education ministry will search for chemical substances that can potentially be used in a new drug treatment, and the economy ministry will improve the performance of related medical equipment, such as those for diagnostic imaging and radiation therapy.
Afterward, the health ministry will investigate the outcome of the efforts by the education and economy ministries, as well as examine the efficacy and safety of the treatment methods.
The ministries have made it a goal to develop 10 or more treatment drugs and bring them to the stage of final trials for practical use by about 2020.
In 2011, there were about 360,000 cancer-related deaths in Japan, making it the leading cause of death among Japanese people.
Cancers of the lung, stomach and colon were the most common, killing about 170,000 people that year. About 30,000 people died from pancreatic cancer.
"Cancer research has been conducted independently by different ministries, so much of the work has gone to waste and we have not been able to make the most of the achievements of basic research," said Aichi Medical University Prof. Ryuzo Ueda, a specialist in tumour immunology who has been involved in cancer research projects at the health and education ministries.