Page last updated at 10:19 GMT, Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Cancer drug victory in the offing

By Graham Satchell
BBC News correspondent

Campaigners
Lack of access to drugs has provoked public fury

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) meets in Manchester on Wednesday and is expected to approve new kidney cancer drugs for use on the NHS in England and Wales - drugs it rejected last year.

The decision will be made public in March, but if the drugs are approved it will be a victory for thousands of patients who have been campaigning to get access to the drugs that could extend their lives.

Clive Stone is one of those patients. He has kidney cancer that has spread to his lungs.

"It's bad enough to have this cancer," he said.

What does that mean for the patients who didn't get the treatment and died? It's tough and it's cruel
Professor Jonathan Waxman
Imperial College London
"But to have to fight for a treatment that is available in Romania is appalling."

Last August NICE decided four new Kidney cancer drugs - Sutent, Avastin, Nexavar and Torisel - were not cost effective enough to be made available on the NHS.

It acknowledged that the drugs work, that they extend life, but at 30,000 a year they were too expensive.

Public outcry

Clive Stone
Clive Stone has campaigned for kidney cancer drugs on the NHS
What followed was a huge public outcry. Clive led a protest of terminally ill cancer patients to NICE headquarters in London. Leading cancer experts also expressed outrage.

NICE has responded by performing something of a u-turn.

A couple of weeks ago it issued new guidelines. It now says expensive new drugs may be approved if they extend life by more than three months for patients with less than two years to live.

But only for conditions that affect fewer than 7,000 new patients a year.

The change of direction has been welcomed by oncologists like Professor Jonathan Waxman, from Imperial College in London.

"What does it mean for patients ?" he asks.

"It means that effectively a treatment that's been delayed for two years is now available.

"What does that mean for the patients who didn't get the treatment and died? It's tough and it's cruel."

Battles ahead

But although there may be good news for kidney cancer patients critics say the new guidance from NICE may be too narrowly defined and there will be more battles ahead.

When we look in Europe many medicines are in frequent and common use across the developed world and at higher prices then we are charging here
Richard Barker
Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry
The guidance specifically talks about patient groups of 7,000 - co-incidentally the number of patients who get kidney cancer a year.

But 38,000 patients get lung cancer each year, and 45,000 get breast cancer.

What will happen if drug manufacturers produce new treatments for terminally ill patients with those forms of cancer?

NICE says the NHS does not have a bottomless pit of money and it has accused drug companies of overpricing new medicines.

It is something Richard Barker, from the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry, rejects.

"When we look in Europe many medicines are in frequent and common use across the developed world and at higher prices then we are charging here," he said.

"There is something about the way we evaluate them here that is a problem."

The new kidney cancer drugs may help to prolong Clive Stone's life.

But he is angry that for some members of his support group it has come too late.

"We have had to wait so long for this and over Christmas three very brave people in our group died," he said.

"To be denied a drug and to see what their families go through is appalling."

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