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Page last updated at 11:11 GMT, Wednesday, 8 February 2006

Herceptin: Wanting the wonder drug

A new generation of expensive drugs is revolutionising the treatment of cancer and throwing the NHS into turmoil.

One of those drugs, Herceptin, has had women marching on Westminster, demanding that it be available on the NHS within weeks of promising trial data being revealed.

Herceptin campaigners outside Downing Street
Herceptin has become a delicate political and medical issue

When one patient threatened to take her case to court and Herceptin hit the headlines, the Secretary of State intervened prompting health authorities to complain to the Department of Health of political arm twisting.

Panorama tells the inside story of the pressure put on a cash strapped Primary Care Trust to change its mind and fund a hugely expensive drug, simply, claims its Chairman, "to satisfy the whim of the PM and Secretary of State".

From Stoke to Westminster

A packet of the drug Herceptin
Should Herceptin be available on the NHS?
The story begins in a chemotherapy ward in Stoke-on-Trent in the summer of 2005, when a group of women started chatting.

They all had early stage breast cancer. Seven had a particularly aggressive tumour. One had heard of a drug that might help. No sooner had they been told Herceptin could work for them than they were told they couldn't have it.

Herceptin is already licensed and available on the NHS for women with advanced breast cancer but not yet as a treatment for early onset breast cancer.

Stoke's women weren't prepared to wait, nor did the possible side effects put them off. For them it was a must have drug, their shot at a cure.

But with many NHS hospitals in financial crisis, is it right that an expensive, unlicensed drug should be made available to a select group of patients, whilst others are having their operations cancelled?

On the eve of the first ever High Court case that will pit a patient fighting for Herceptin against her local health chiefs, Panorama talks exclusively to the patient involved and reveals the results of a prescription survey carried out among the country's oncologists.

Panorama investigates the rise of patient power and the tough "value for money" decisions now facing the NHS, and asks whether the "postcode lottery" of healthcare is being replaced by "who shouts loudest".

Apology: In the programme Ann Winterton was referred to in commentary, incorrectly, as a Labour Member of Parliament. She is in fact the Conservative MP for Congleton, Cheshire. Panorama would like to apologise for this error and any confusion it may have caused.

Panorama: Herceptin: Wanting the Wonder Drug was on BBC One on Sunday February 5 2006.

SEE ALSO
Herceptin: Your views
05 Mar 06 |  Have Your Say

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