Surgical research spurned for 'sexy' science projects

Image caption The UK is behind the US and many parts of Europe in using the latest surgical techniques

The Royal College of Surgeons says many patients are dying, or remaining ill for longer, because surgical research is being starved of funds.

In a new report the RSC has called for a larger slice of research funding.

The College estimates that surgery receives 1.5% of the £1.5bn that's currently spent on medical research.

The next President of the RSC, Norman Williams said funding bodies were instead backing fashionable research areas such as stem cells and genetics.

"Our academic institutions have concentrated on non-surgical research because surgery hasn't been sexy," he said.

According to Professor Williams, the current system of testing new medicines and surgical techniques is flawed and discourages surgeons from developing and testing new methods.

This is reflected, he said, in the fact that just 11 surgical trials were financed by funding bodies in 2009.

"This is a major problem across the country. We are finding it extremely difficult to develop new technology, to train people to use that new technology and to use that to disseminate it to different centres to get it established".

The report calls for a new system to pilot and trial new techniques.

Surgery cures

It argues that a small investment in developing new techniques could make a big difference to patient care.

Professor Williams said his own field of bowel surgery has been revolutionised by a new surgical technique which has improved survival rates, far more than radiotherapy or chemotherapy.

Image caption Medical Research focussed on fashionable areas of research such as stem cells, according to RSC

Although the technique was developed in the UK, the surgeon who developed the technique could not get backing for clinical trials to be carried out in the UK so it was tested out in Scandinavia: a factor which delayed its routine use in the UK by 20 years," he said.

The report, also said surgeons themselves were partly to blame arguing the profession does not have a research culture and there is no system to spread best practice.

Not accurate

The situation could be improved, according to the RCS, if the NHS Commissioning Board (NCB) encouraged the spread of successful techniques. It also suggested that NHS Trusts should encourage and support trials.

In response to the report, the Medical Research Council said that it's "not accurate" to say it is not supportive of research in this area.

Dr Declan Mulkeen, who is the director of the MRC's research programmes, said: "We should be optimistic rather than pessimistic about how much surgical research has won funding over the past few years and what the potential is for it to be supported even more over the next while."

A Department of Health spokesperson said efforts were being made to encourage surgical research.

"We invest £20 million in a regional innovation fund each year to share the most innovative practices and treatments across the NHS. And over the next four years we have committed over £4 billion to high quality medical research - including surgical research.

"We encourage surgeons to apply for this funding as we want to support new ideas and research that meets NIHR requirements and helps us to deliver high quality care to patients."

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