A new research funded by Cancer Research UK is investigating the possibility of diagnosing cancer earlier by identifying potential patterns in medicines prescribed to patients before they develop cancer.

In the cases of patients with non-specific symptoms, the patterns in prescriptions and other data are expected to allow general practitioners (GPs) to guide the patients for precise treatment.

Funded through Cancer Research UK’s Pioneer Awards scheme, the research is being led by the Health Data Insight.

In partnership with Public Health England and the NHS Business Services Authority, Health Data Insight has created an anonymous dataset comprising nearly all the primary care prescription data.

The information can then be linked to the data in National Cancer Registration and Analysis Service to identify patterns in medications prescribed to patients before the development of cancer.

Health Data Insight medical director Dr Jem Rashbass said: “We want to develop a tool that helps GPs diagnose cancer earlier in the hope of saving more lives. It can be very difficult for them to know which patients to refer for further tests.

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“Large studies like this are only possible because anonymous data on large numbers of cancer patients is available for research through the NHS.

"Our idea is to use this unparalleled information on prescription data and other information to better identify patients for referrals or follow-up."

“Our idea is to use this unparalleled information on prescription data and other information to better identify patients for referrals or follow-up.”

It is expected that the research will provide information on rare, hard-to-recognise cancers like brain tumours.

Cancer Research UK research and innovation director Dr Iain Foulkes said: “Cancer survival in the UK lags behind other countries in Europe, in part because people are diagnosed when the disease is more advanced and harder to treat. 

“Dr Jem Rashbass is collecting a wealth of data, which he can then mine for new ways to diagnose cancer earlier. This is a potentially powerful study that could transform the way cancer is detected and is made possible because of the unique strengths of the UK health system.”

Image: Prescription history might enable GPs to diagnose cancer earlier. Photo: courtesy of Cancer Research UK.