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Thursday, 28 June, 2001, 11:33 GMT 12:33 UK
Verdict approaches on breast drug
A decision on Herceptin is expected soon
Doctors will find out within weeks whether the NHS will pay for the expensive breast cancer drug Herceptin, says the government's cancer "czar".

Professor Mike Richards, speaking on a BBC News Online webcast from the Global Cancer Conference in Brighton, said that the body that assesses drugs for the NHS was close to making a decision.

And he pledged that if its experts found in favour of the drug, he would ensure that it was available throughout England and Wales.

If they say yes to these drugs, then we will ensure that they are freely available to all patients who need them in this country

Professor Mike Richards, National Cancer Director
The drug, which costs approximately 20,000 per patient per year, is freely available in many other countries, and improves survival rates in certain patients.

However, even though it has been licensed as safe and effective in this country since 1999, women have had to pay for it privately.

Cancer charities have been critical of the length of time it has taken the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) to assess it.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the Cancer Research Campaign, told the BBC News Online webcast that the UK was taking far longer to get groundbreaking new treatments into the NHS.

He said: "NICE has had this huge backlog, and Herceptin has suffered as a result - I think it has been 18 months on from its registration in the UK."

'Matter of weeks'

Professor Richards told BBC News Online that it was now only a "matter of weeks" before a final decision would be issued by the body.

He said: "If they say yes to these drugs, then we will ensure that they are freely available to all patients who need them in this country."

Herceptin is just one of a number of drugs which have caused a headache for the NHS.

Potentially, the breast cancer treatment, could cost as much as 10m a year if every eligible patient was given it.

Professor Richards used the webcast to defend the NHS Cancer Plan, launched by Health Secretary Alan Milburn last year.

It involves a huge cash injection to buy new equipment and train extra specialists, but some doctors are worried that the money could dry up once the current comprehensive spending review period closes in two years time.

'Among the best'

But Professor Richards said: "Health is a very high priority for this government - we are already working on the next spending round. The commitment is there."

He predicted that cancer care - currently lagging behind other European countries - would be "among the best".

He said he was also confident that legislation to ban tobacco advertising, despite its absence from the Queen's Speech earlier this month, would be introduced during this government's current term.

He said: "It will be done during this Parliament and the sooner the better."

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30 Mar 01 | Health
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