Breast cancer drug Herceptin soon to be widely available on NHS

The British health secretary Patricia Hewitt has ordered a fast-track assessment of Herceptin, a drug which has shown great promise in treating the early stages of breast cancer.

Hewitt's intervention came after concern the drug was being denied to patients who could benefit from its use.

It is now down to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), to assess whether the drug should be made widely available on the NHS.

Herceptin is already used to treat women with advanced breast cancer, and is specifically targeted at the one in four patients who have a form of the disease known as HER2 positive breast cancer.

As yet it is not licensed for treating early stage breast cancer, but preliminary tests have shown the drug is effective when given to these patients.

Researchers say more work needs to be done to be certain that the benefits of the treatment outweigh any potentially damaging side effects.

Ms Hewitt has apparently asked NICE to start work on assessing the drug as soon as possible, so it is in a position to act quickly if and when the drug receives a licence.

According to the manufacturer, Roche, it will apply for a licence next year, and that could be granted within two or three months of the application.

John Melville, general manager of Roche UK, says they are doing everything in their power to gain a European marketing licence for early stage HER2 positive breast cancer patients as soon as possible.

They estimate a decision will be made by the European Medicines Regulatory Agency (EMEA) between July and November 2006.

National Cancer Director, Mike Richards, has welcomed the health secretary's decision.

He is encouraged by the preliminary results on the use of Herceptin for early stage breast cancer, and says it is important that the NHS receives timely advice on the clinical and cost effectiveness of such treatments.

The charity CancerBACUP highlighted delays in patients accessing Herceptin in a report earlier this year.

Derryn Borley, spokesman for the charity, says cancer patients call the helpline to find out how soon they can access new treatments, and the entire system of assessing cancer treatments needs to be sped up.

Professor Alan Ashworth, of Breakthrough Breast Cancer, also says it is vital that Herceptin is licensed if the potential benefits of the drug to save lives is to be realised quickly.

Major medical insurance company, BUPA, announced this week that it would pay for patients with early stage breast cancer to use Herceptin.

BUPA medical director, Dr Natalie-Jane Macdonald, says they have funded Herceptin as a treatment for late stage breast cancer in line with its current licence, given the impressive results of recent trials, they will now fund it for the treatment early stage breast cancer for HER2 positive patients.

Hewitt has also asked NICE to fast track assessment of Velcade, a drug for the treatment of multiple myeloma.

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