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Friday, 15 March, 2002, 15:51 GMT
Relief over breast drug decision
Herceptin could help women with advanced cancer
Cancer experts have welcomed a decision to make a drug that could help thousands of women with breast cancer available on the NHS.

Campaigners who were angry that the decision took so long, say it could extend the lives of many desperately ill women.

But some health service observers have pointed out that the decision means money can now not be spent in other areas.

Herceptin has been available in the US for almost five years, and women in many European countries can also get it.

However, it was not licensed for use in the UK until mid-2000.

And the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), only decided on Friday that the drug, which could cost 17m across England and Wales each year, should be made available on the NHS.

NICE advises the government on the clinical and cost-effectiveness of drugs

A breast cancer cell: One in five with advanced cancer could benefit
A breast cancer cell
The battle for Herceptin:
  • Some hospitals and health authorities pay for the drug
  • It costs 10,000 per patient per year

      Read about how two women fought to get Herceptin

  • The delay has caused a storm of protest from patient groups - and patients themselves, many of whom have been forced to pay for the treatment, which costs at least 700 a week.

    Some health authorities and hospitals chose to pay for it, while they awaited the ruling by NICE.

    This meant there was a "postcode lottery" in the drug, as women in one catchment area could get it, while just a few miles away, they were refused.

    Herceptin is given to women who have advanced breast cancer, and trials suggest it can hold up the progress of the cancer, as well as improve quality of life.


    Approximately one-in-five women in this position are suitable for treatment - a blood test can identify those who are.

    We have been waiting 18 months to find out if Herceptin will be made available to those who will benefit

    Delyth Morgan, Breast Cancer Breakthrough
    The government has the final say in whether the NHS should pay for it, but has pledged to implement all NICE guidance in full.

    NICE only covers England and Wales, and separate guidance will have to be issued for Scotland and Northern Ireland.

    Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK with over 35,000 new cases diagnosed each year.

    It is the leading cause of all deaths in women aged 35 to 54 and kills more than 1,000 women every month.

    Positive response

    This drug is a clinically and cost effective treatment for such women and that it should be available across England and Wales

    Anne-Toni Rodgers
    The NICE decision was welcomed by Professor Gordon McVie, joint director general of Cancer Research UK.

    He said it should spell the end of a postcode lottery for women with the form of breast cancer who could benefit from the drug.

    "All eligible women, regardless of where they live or how much they earn should now have free access to the drug on the NHS.

    "The improvements in survival from Herceptin both as a single agent and in combination with paclitaxel are well documented."

    The UK successfully treats seven out of 10 women with breast cancer.

    But survival rates for women with a particular form of the disease known as - HER2 positive metastatic breast cancer - have the worst outlook of all patients.

    Their average survival time is less than a year.

    It is these women who will be offered new hope by Herceptin.

    Step forward

    Speaking on Friday, Anne-Toni Rodgers, NICE communications director, said: "Today's guidance represents a major step forward for women with HER2 positive metastatic breast cancer.

    "In summary these women have a protein on the surface their cancer cells, which means that their cancer is particularly fast growing.

    "Today's guidance makes clear to the NHS that this drug is a clinically and cost effective treatment for such women and that it should be available across England and Wales."

    Ms Rodgers dismissed accusations that NICE had dragged its feet over making a decision. She said the earliest that an announcement could have been made was December 2001.

    Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Breakthrough, said: "This will have enormous implications for women with advanced breast cancer."

    The BBC's Karen Allen
    "Where other treatments fail Herceptin offers hope"
    Cancer Research UK Director Professor Gordon McVie
    "This is a very important step forward"
    Cancer Physician Dr Chris Poole
    "Those of us who treat cancer are relieved"
    See also:

    05 May 01 | Health
    Drug prescribing methods queried
    15 Aug 01 | Health
    Fury over cancer drug delays
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