Despite the fact that bowel cancer is the third most common form of the disease in Britain and kills 16,000 people every year, the government watchdog on drugs the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has sparked a bitter controversy by refusing to provide two bowel cancer drugs on the National Health Service (NHS) to cancer patients.
Their grounds for refusal are that the two new targeted therapies for bowel cancer, Avastin and Erbitux, are not cost effective.
Both Avastin and Erbitux are widely available in the United States and much of Europe.
NICE is the body responsible for deciding which medicines are worth using on the state health service in England and Wales, and although neither drug is a cure for bowel cancer, the treatments have been shown in clinical trials to extend life expectancy by around four to five months in some patients.
Avastin, known generically as bevacizumab, works by starving tumours of blood supply, while Erbitux, or cetuximab, stops the proliferation of cancer cells.
Cancer charities are up in arms and are planning to challenge the ruling, saying it is a scandal and a backward step and warning that thousands of patients will die early as a result.
Bowel Cancer UK, says the decision is further proof that the NHS is simply not working for bowel cancer patients and needs a full and comprehensive review.
The organisation points out a £10 billion overspend on controversial IT programmes by the government, yet patients are denied treatments that can help them live longer and better lives.
Nice has said neither drug represents a good use of scarce NHS resources, and though bevacizumab does show some increased benefit over standard treatment, the appraisal committee was not persuaded that it was cost- effective in the treatment of metastatic colorectal cancer.
NICE says the average cost of treating a patient with Avastin was around £16,800 pounds, while Erbitux would cost some £11,700 pounds, based on doses given during clinical studies.
Avastin was discovered by U.S. biotech group Genentech Inc. and is marketed in Europe by Switzerland's Roche Holding. Erbitux, from U.S. firm ImClone Systems Inc., is sold in Europe by Germany's Merck KGaA.