Way now clear for use of costly breast cancer drug throughout UK

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Health managers in the UK have virtually been ordered to pay for the drug Herceptin for women with an aggressive form of breast cancer in its early stages.

Government health secretary, Patricia Hewitt, said local health trusts must not refuse to fund the drug solely on the grounds of cost - £21,800 a year - even if some might have to make trade-offs in their own priorities to find the money.

Hewitt says providing the drug to patients is dependent on doctors supporting the treatment.

Acknowledging the "huge frustration" of many women about delays in getting new cancer treatments, Ms Hewitt took the unusual step of backing widespread availability of a drug whose use is not expected to be licensed until next summer.

NICE, the government body that advises on effectiveness of treatments, is expected to rule about the same time.

Herceptin is said to have the potential to save 1,000 lives a year in England alone.

Results of trials published last week suggest the drug cuts by half the risk of cancer returning after a year among the 20% to 30% of women whose cancer is linked to the HER2 protein.

These results have prompted Ms Hewitt to fast track NICE appraisal and widen testing of women to ensure they might benefit.

Also to be announced soon are proposals to streamline NICE appraisals of a range of other drugs which many charities say are routinely delayed by bureaucratic bottlenecks.

Currently Herceptin is licensed only for late-stage breast cancer, but health authorities in Devon and Cornwall have already decided to fund Herceptin's use immediately for women who have their doctors' support.

Patients and campaigners at a London meeting of Breakthrough Breast Cancer were delighted by Hewitt's demand that the rest of the 300 primary care trusts must follow Devon and Cornwall's suit.

Herceptin's development costs have been suggested to be as high as £500m, hence it's current pricing structure.

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