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Friday, 25 January, 2002, 14:56 GMT
MS drug appeal turned down
Beta-interferon costs thousands of pounds per patient
MS patients will not be allowed to get two key medicines freely on the NHS, the government's drug watchdog has confirmed.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), which advises the government on whether treatments are suitable for the NHS in England and Wales, has already turned down both beta interferon and glatiramer.

On Friday, it rejected a final appeal by drug companies and patient groups.

MS drugs
80,000 MS patients in UK
2% currently receive beta-interferon
Opinion varies on what proportion of MS patients could be helped by the drug
It costs between 7,000 and 10,000 a year per patient
Approximately 10,000 patients could be involved in trial
However, those disappointed by the verdict are likely to be offered some comfort by a major study of the drugs to be launched in the UK, as part of an unusual agreement between the government and the pharmaceutical industry.

Up to 10,000 of those originally looking to the NHS to provide the drugs should be able to take part in this.

Details of the study have yet to be agreed by Whitehall and drug companies.

Major delay

The MS Society fiercely attacked the length of time - more than two-and-a-half years - it has taken for NICE to make a decision.

Acting chief executive Ken Walker said: "While the trial is good news for many people with MS, it sadly comes too late for many others who have become too disabled to qualify for the drugs while the NICE appraisal has dragged on."

Benefits weighed up

The drugs are primarily aimed at a type of MS called relapsing-remitting, although some other patients may benefit.

It is appalling that NICE's unyielding stance is allowing this unacceptable situation of inequity to continue

Dr Peter Longthorne, Schering Healthcare
In relapsing-remitting, the gradual deterioration of the patient is caused by "relapses" - the more of these suffered, the more quickly the patient will get worse.

Both beta-interferon and glatarimer have been shown in some clinical trials to slow the advance of the disease by reducing the number of relapses - but some doctors do not think the benefits outweigh the high cost of the drugs, at between 7,000 and 10,000 per patient per year.

A minority of MS patients are relapsing-remitting, and the drugs can help only a proportion of these. The drug's advocates said that, by perhaps delaying the moment when a patient requires a wheelchair even by months, the quality of life gained is immense.

Safeguards in place

A spokesman for the Department of Health said that agreement had yet to be reached between themselves and the drug companies.

She said that any agreement would be based on the future effectiveness of the drug.

She said: "After a period of time an assessment would be made of whether the drug was working for patients. If it was, payments would continue. If not, payments to manufacturers would be reduced on a sliding scale."

A spokesman for Schering, one of the two manufacturers of interferon beta drugs, said that the appeal rejection was an "affront", when the drug was freely available in many other countries.

Dr Peter Longthorne, the company's medical director said: " It is appalling that NICE's unyielding stance is allowing this unacceptable situation of inequity to continue."

See also:

30 Nov 98 | Medical notes
Multiple sclerosis
25 Nov 01 | Health
Gene link to MS severity
31 Oct 01 | Health
Trial planned for MS drugs
07 Aug 01 | Health
Concern as MS drug 'rationed'
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