Landmark breast cancer drug to be available on NHS

A “landmark” breast cancer drug which prolongs the life of patients with a particularly aggressive form of the illness will be available on the NHS, as charities say it will give them “precious extra time” with their loved ones.

The breakthrough immunotherapy drug ‘atezolizumab’ has been recommended for use on those with triple negative breast cancer, which is a serious and hard to treat form.

Atezolizumab works by helping the patient’s own immune cells attack the cancer, potentially delaying the progression of the disease by two-and-a-half months and increasing overall survival by nine-and-a-half months.

A deal has now been struck between Roche, the Swiss pharmaceutical firm, and NHS England, meaning the drug will now be available to NHS patients, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) announced last night.

Around 2,000 people in England have triple negative breast cancer, of whom around 600 people will be eligible for treatment with atezolizumab, according to NICE’s draft guidance.

Eligible patients are those who have not had chemotherapy for breast cancer which has spread to other parts of the body, and for those who cannot have the cancer removed with surgery.

Administered with the chemotherapy drug nab-paclitaxel, atezolizumab is the first immunotherapy that specifically targets triple negative breast cancer where tumours have PD-L1 protein expression of one per cent or more.

Welcoming the decision, campaigners and charities said it gave hundreds of women with a “heartbreakingly short” life expectancy more time with family and friends.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive of Breast Cancer Now, said: “It is fantastic news that this groundbreaking immunotherapy will now be available on the NHS for hundreds of secondary breast cancer patients and will provide hope of extra time to live well.

“With very few options to rely on and life expectancy still heartbreakingly short, triple negative secondary breast cancer remains one of the biggest areas of unmet need in breast cancer, and this new treatment now signals a landmark advance in care.

“This is the first immunotherapy to be available for women with secondary breast cancer on the NHS and it’s really exciting that it could now give hundreds of patients precious extra months before their disease progresses.”

NICE’s director of the Centre for Health Technology Evaluation, Meindert Boysen, praised it as a “breakthrough treatment in an area where there are currently few options”.

Roche’s integrated franchise lead for breast cancer, Lesley Hugo, hailed it as a “major advance”.

The company has agreed to offer the drug to the NHS with a confidential discount. Normally, the cost of a seven-and-a-half month course of treatment with atezolizumab is nearly £40,000.

This landmark deal will come as a huge relief to many families, as a triple negative breast cancer diagnosis can put significant “emotional and financial” burden on patients and their relatives, NICE said.

It is a particularly difficult form of cancer to treat and is named after its lack of three molecules called receptors.

All other types of breast cancer have at least one of those receptors, which are important for passing signals to cancer cells.

Many of the most effective treatments work by targeting receptors.

As a result, triple negative breast cancer treatment is limited to surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy.

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