A national lung cancer screening programme could potentially save thousands of lives a year, experts said during a conference in Birmingham yesterday.
Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support, and the UK's cancer tsar Professor Mike Richards, spoke during the National Cancer Research Institute conference, being held at the International Convention Centre.
The NCRI and the Government are assessing whether screening high-risk people would be cost effective and could cut the death rate from lung cancer.
More than 38,000 people a year are diagnosed with the disease, which claims 33,000 lives every year.
Work is under way to see if screening, in the form of CT scans, would be cost effective.
However, health organisations claim lung cancer does not attract high levels of funding due to a "nihilistic" attitude and a culture of blame towards smokers.
Mr Cardy said: "Lung cancer is responsible for a fifth of all cancer-related deaths, it's the largest single cause of cancer mortality yet it only attracts four per cent of available research funding.
"We are optimistic that this can be changed. A sum of £2.25 million over five years has been pledged by Macmillan, as well as Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council. This will double the amount currently spent on lung cancer research.
"Lung cancer is associated with nihilism, despondency and blame, as it is felt people have literally brought this on themselves by smoking. But this attitude does not help."
An NCRI report published yesterday revealed that lung cancer research in Birmingham attracted only two per cent of available funding, the second-lowest funding in the country after Sheffield (1.8 per cent), while centres in London (30 per cent) received the most.
Mr Cardy, in backing The Birmingham Post's Cancer 2020 campaign, added: "Given that lung cancer is such a serious issue and that there is very little progress in improving outcomes from it then certainly my view is that this should be a priority area.
"Most people in the UK are diagnosed when the disease is no longer curable by surgery, but increasing the number of people diagnosed early will help cut mortality rates. Screening programmes for other cancers have helped reduce mortality rates.
"There are a lot of steps involved and we are a long way off from that. However use of Spiral CT could lead to more operations and, a programme like this has the potential of saving thousands of lives."
Questions were asked at the conference about how effective the tests were, whether people could be encouraged to attend screenings and whether the extra investment could be justified.
Professor Mike Richards, National Cancer Director and NCRI' chairman, said experts were eagerly awaiting results of trials in the US, Belgium and Holland on the feasibility of a screening programme.
He said: "We're several years away at least, as we don't know from any screening programme in the world if this will save lives. We're awaiting results from studies in the US and in Europe, but those may not come through until 2010 or 2015.
"Picking up symptoms early does help although traditional thinking has been if you've got these symptoms then it's too late, but we've since found that not to be the case, so we need to encourage people to come forward in the first place."