Thousands of Britons are needlessly missing out on crucial cancer diagnoses and treatment because a chain of private facilities are sitting gathering dust, experts have claimed.
Rutherford Health Group, which ran five cancer clinics in England and Wales, filed for liquidation in June.
Four months on, the centres, which could provide cancer tests and treatments to some 3,500 Britons per month, sit unused.
Their diagnostic machines and treatment facilities are locked away behind closed doors.
This is despite the Government declaring war on cancer in the wake of the pandemic.
NHS bosses are struggling to hit treatment targets, with only 60 per cent of patients starting cancer care within two months of an urgent referral.
This delay could make the difference between life and death for some patients, top experts fear.
Professor Karol Sikora, a world-renowned oncologist and founder of the Rutherford Health Group, told MailOnline the situation was ‘scandalous’.
He said: ‘We have got centres gathering dust at the time of the biggest cancer crisis of my career.’
Up to 4,000 extra Britons could benefit from the centres every month if the NHS was able to use them, Professor Sikora claimed.
The now closed Rutherford cancer could be brought back online and help diagnose and treat thousands of people with the disease, former staff say. Pictured: Rutherford Health cancer centre in Newport, South Wales. The company also has centres in Reading, Liverpool, Newcastle and Taunton
Professor Karol Sikora, who helped found the Rutherford cancer centres said they could help treat or diagnose 4,000 people per month
What is Proton Beam Therapy, what is it used for and how does it work?
Proton beam therapy is a type of radiotherapy that aims proton beams at cancers.
While conventional radiotherapy uses high energy beams of radiation to destroy cancerous cells, often damaging surrounding tissue, proton beam therapy aims radiation directly at the tumour.
Because it is so highly targeted it means it can avoid healthy tissue, particularly tissues and organs behind the tumour.
Radiotherapy can lead to side effects such as nausea and can sometimes disrupt how some organs function, but proton beam therapy has a lower risk of side effects.
This means it is effective for treating cancer that affects critical areas, such as brain cancer.
Ashya King, whose case sparked an international manhunt in 2014, underwent proton beam therapy.
Brett and Naghmeh King were arrested after they took their son, then five, for brain tumour treatment abroad as the NHS initially refused to offer proton beam therapy, which his parents felt was less harmful than conventional radiotherapy.
They took him from Southampton Hospital and travelled to the Czech Republic for treatment at the Proton Therapy Center.
Ashya was finally allowed to undergo treatment a Prague hospital after a long legal battle fought by his parents. Eventually, he was declared cancer-free in March 2016.
But health bosses have previously disputed the claims, saying that Rutherford could not provide the services needed to help tackle the backlog.
‘We would save a lot of people’s lives, and we’d also increase the quality of life for a lot more people by getting treatment for cancer starting in a timely fashion,’ Professor Sikora said.
‘We could certainly make a significant dent in the backlog.’
A longer wait between cancer diagnoses and treatment can let tumours grow larger or spread further, meaning longer bouts of grueling chemotherapy or radiotherapy are needed to treat the disease, if it remains treatable.
When operational, the centres, which cost £240million to set up, offered a range of cancer treatments.
This included proton beam therapy, as well as radiotherapy, chemotherapy and immunotherapy.
The centres were also geared up to carry out diagnostic scans, like MRIs and CTs.
The largest centres were located in South Wales, Northumberland, Liverpool and Thames Valley, with a community diagnostics centre in Somerset.
Following the liquidation of the group in June, Rutherford’s assets were handed to London-based investment business Equitix to find a buyer.
But despite four bids to buy the centres, and potentially getting them restarted by Christmas, they remain unused.
Professor Sikora said Equitix have not responded to potential bidders or himself, with it believed the firm is trying to lease them to the NHS.
But ex-Rutherford staff fear NHS officials might block any arrangement.
Professor Sikora said: ‘It’s partly their aversion to opening up protons, they don’t want protons to come out of the ration box.’
Proton beam therapy is a type of radiotherapy that aims a narrow beams of protons cancers.
As opposed to other forms of radiotherapy, which can damage healthy tissues as they target a broad area, proton beam therapy is extremely accurate.
The NHS only offers proton therapy in at two hospitals, one in Manchester and one in London. It is expensive, costing upwards of £25,000 per course, with multiple round of treatment sometimes needed.
Sean Sullivan, brought in to restructure Rutherford as interim chief executive, said: ‘Cancer doesn’t wait, in terms of large scale numbers we are talking about the deaths of thousands of people.’
An NHS England spokesperson said: ‘It is untrue that NHS England has blocked the use of Rutherford facilities. At the time Rutherford entered receivership, a large number of their patients were being treated on the NHS.’
MailOnline attempted to contact Equitix but was unsuccessful.
At the time, Rutherford’s bosses blamed the collapse of the centres on two reasons.
The first was cancer cases being missed due to the Covid pandemic, which led to fewer private patients
While the second was a lack of interest from the NHS in using the private sector to tackle cancer care waiting lists, even on a not-for-profit basis.
The cancer care backlog is one of the most concerning aspects of the ongoing NHS crisis.
Cancer charities estimate that 32,000 fewer patients than expected have started their first treatment in the two years since the start of the pandemic.
It comes as NHS cancer care in England continues to fail to hit targets. The latest official data shows cancer patients starting treatment within two months of an urgent referral was 61.6 per cent in July. The figure is well below the 85 per cent standard, which hasn’t been hit since 2014
This was due to a combination of hospitals prioritising Covid over regular care and diagnostics, poor access to GPs during lockdowns, and patients being reluctant to come forward with potential symptoms due to fear of the virus.
Experts have said that at current treatment rates, it could be five years before the NHS catches up with cancer cases missed in the pandemic.
Delays in cancer care raise the risk of the disease spreading to other parts of the body, which slashes survival rates and reduces patients’ treatment options.
And official data shows the health service is repeatedly failing to hit its own cancer targets.
NHS England aims to have 85 per cent of cancer patients starting treatment within two months of an urgent referral from their GP.
Only 61.1 per cent of patients, about 8,700 people, were treated within this timeframe, with nearly 5,500 forced to wait for longer.
While Covid exacerbated the problem in NHS cancer care, the issue predates the virus, with the two month target of 85 per cent not having been met since 2014.
Other key cancer targets are also failing to meet operational standards.
For example, only 77.8 per cent of patients got an appointment with a consultant two weeks after an urgent referral. The NHS target is 93 per cent.
Breast cancer targets are particularly bad, with only 68.5 per cent of patients with suspected breast cancer seen within two weeks. NHS guidelines say 93 per cent of these patients should be seen within this timeframe.