Page last updated at 14:56 GMT, Wednesday, 5 October 2005 15:56 UK

Cancer drug testing 'shortfall'

Breast tumour
Women will be tested to see if they could benefit from Herceptin

The government has announced all women with early stage breast cancer are to be tested to see if they would benefit from the drug Herceptin.

But breast cancer campaigners say the system is a long way from providing that level of service.

A survey of 100 cancer consultants in England and Wales by CancerBACUP, carried out last month, found just under a third said their hospitals carried out no HER2 testing at all.

Of those whose hospitals did have a HER2 testing policy,only half of breast cancer patients were given the check when diagnosed.

We know that at the moment more than a quarter of women with breast cancer are never HER2 tested
CPS:LINK HREF="" ID="4311140" STYLE="rightarrow">Herceptin tests for all

A quarter were never tested.

The government is proposing that all women in England diagnosed with early stage breast cancer - around 20,000 a year - should be given the test to see if they would benefit from the drug.

Herceptin targets a protein called HER2, which appears to be over-abundant in some women's breast cancers.

An estimated fifth of breast cancer cases are HER2 positive.

The drug is currently licensed for use to treat advanced breast cancer.

Campaigners are calling for its use to be extended to early stage cancer.

For this to happen, the drug must be licensed for use in this group and approved for use in the NHS.

It is expected this process will be completed by summer next year.

Funding hurdle

The CancerBACUP survey found women in certain groups are more likely to be tested because they are thought to be more likely to be HER2 positive.

These include:

    Younger womenThose with more aggressive cancersCancer not linked to hormones, which will not respond to certain drugs such as TamoxifenCancers that have spread to the lymph nodes

CancerBACUP said 84% of the doctors surveyed felt funding for testing facilities and specialist staff was the biggest hurdle to automatic HER2 testing becoming a reality.

The charity is to submit its data to Professor Mike Richards, the Cancer Tsar.

Joanne Rule, Chief Executive of CancerBACUP, welcomed routine HER2 testing.

But she said: "It's vital, however, that systems and resources are put in place to ensure this happens.

"We know that at the moment more than a quarter of women with breast cancer are never HER2 tested and only half are currently tested at diagnosis."

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt has charged Professor Richards with ensuring the NHS has the facilities to offer the test all women with early stage breast cancer.

She has also pledged that the money would be found to provide the drug to all those who need it.

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