Page last updated at 14:31 GMT, Monday, 1 June 2009 15:31 UK

Green light for bowel cancer drug

Bowel cancer cell
Bowel cancer is a common form of the disease

Campaigners have hailed a decision to give NHS approval for a drug which can extend life expectancy for people with advanced bowel cancer.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) reversed a previous decision to block NHS use of Erbitux on cost effectiveness grounds.

It follows an agreement by maker Merck to cut the price of the drug by 16%.

Erbitux will now be offered to some patients whose cancer has spread to their liver.

We hope that this positive ruling by NICE heralds a new era in the treatment of the disease
Ian Beaumont
Bowel Cancer UK

It is estimated that at least 2,000 patients a year in the UK could benefit.

However, the drug will only be approved for patients who have already undergone surgery, and whose disease has spread to the liver, but nowhere else.

Patients will only receive Erbitux for a maximum of 16 weeks.

Erbitux works in around 60% of the two-thirds of bowel cancer patients who have a cancer gene called K-RAS wild type.

Those who do respond to the drug can expect to live for an average of two years after starting treatment.

Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK. More than 100 people every day are diagnosed with the disease.

Value for money

Professor Peter Littlejohns, NICE's clinical and public health director, said Merck's offer to cut the price of Erbitux meant that it now provided good value for money.

Ciaran Devane, of Macmillan Cancer Support, said he was delighted by the news.

He said: "Although it can only be used in certain cases, it is good news for patients as this treatment could potentially extend and improve the quality of their lives.

"We hope this drug will be swiftly made available to all those who could benefit from it."

Hilary Whittaker, of the charity Beating Bowel Cancer said research had shown that Erbitux could shrink secondary liver tumours enough so that they could be removed by surgery.

She said Erbitux, and similar drugs, were available as a matter of course in other European countries .

"Patients in the UK want to be treated on an equal footing and expect the NHS to continue to care for them towards the end of their life."

Ian Beaumont, of the charity Bowel Cancer UK, welcomed the NICE decision.

"We hope that this positive ruling by NICE heralds a new era in the treatment of the disease."

Erbitux is a member of a class of drugs known as monoclonal antibodies.

They are designed to target cancer cells for destruction without damaging normal cells.

They work by recognising proteins that are found on the surface of cancer cells.

Thousands of terminally ill patients suffering from cancer of the blood will receive life-extending treatment after a landmark pricing deal between a drug manufacturer and the NHS.

It is not the first time that NICE has approved a drug after striking a deal on cost with the manufacturers.

Other drugs which have been giving the go ahead in similar circumstances include the multiple myeloma therapy Revlimid, and Lucentis, used to treat the eye disorder age-related macular degeneration.

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