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Thursday, 28 March, 2002, 17:09 GMT
Cancer drug given go-ahead
The drug targets cancer cells directly
The drug targets cancer cells directly
A "magic bullet" treatment for the commonest form of blood cancer in the UK is to be made available on the NHS.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) has said MabThera, or rituximab, is used in the treatment of people with follicular non-Hodgkin's lymphoma (NHL), who are unsuitable for chemotherapy.

NHL is the world's third-fastest growing form of cancer.

The decision by NICE means the drug will be available on the NHS in England and Wales.

The medical community firmly considers it to be a gold standard

Professor Anthony Goldstone, University College Hospital, London
MabThera is called a "magic bullet" treatment because it, targets the cancer directly and does not have the side effects of chemotherapy, such as hair loss, nausea or the depletion of white blood cells.

It costs around 6,500 per patient for a four-week intravenous course.

The Lymphoma Association welcomed the decision, and said MabThera was "the most significant advance" in lymphoma treatment for years.

But they said patients had had to wait for a long time for NICE to complete its appraisal.

Commonest cancer

Lymphomas are cancers of the lymphatic system, a network of vessels which form part of the body's immune system, and carry other infection-fighting cells called "lymphocytes", as well as draining dead cells away from the tissues.

About 9,000 people are diagnosed with NHL in the UK every year. It is the commonest form of cancer of the blood in UK adults.

There were 4,500 deaths from the cancer in 1999. NHL.

Between 22% and 40% of people with NHL are estimated to have the follicular or low-grade form.

It is often diagnosed when the cancer is fairly advanced, as there may be no symptoms in the early stages of the disease.

NICE has been looking at the MabThera for around two years.

It's decision to approve the drug for use with some NHS patients follows the granting of a UK licence for its use, along with standard chemotherapy, to treat the aggressive form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.

Clinical trials have suggested the combination of the drug and chemotherapy can increase patient's chances of a cure and may live longer than if they received chemotherapy alone.

NICE did not consider MabThera for this group of patients.

Access to treatment

Cancer experts welcomed NICE's decision.

Professor Anthony Goldstone, professor of haematology at University College Hospital, London, said: "Currently, MabThera is prescribed for patients because of its effectiveness and low toxicity.

"It works in a completely different way to conventional chemotherapy by binding to only lymphoma cells and not targeting normal cells.

"The medical community firmly considers it to be a gold standard. We're delighted that now all eligible patients will have the opportunity to be treated with MabThera as are patients in the rest of the world."

Alan Bartle, chief executive of the Lymphoma Association, said: "The appraisal process was very lengthy and some patients who are very ill have been denied access to this treatment.

"But the good news is that patients will now have access to MabThera, wherever they live in England and Wales."

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