Echo (KC) 15-Aug-08

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Threat to cancer patients' lifeline drug supply

By Steve Hackwell

IN THE winter of 2005, John Welch was told kidney cancer would kill him within six months.

Image:(KC) WELCH, John 01.jpg John Welsh fears losing his NHS Sutent prescription

Three years on, John is not only still around, he insists he’s never felt better, largely thanks to a cancer drug called Sutent.

Now John and hundreds of cancer sufferers across the country have been dealt a terrible blow.

The Government’s drugs review body, the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence – Nice for short – says it may stop the NHS prescribing Sutent next January.

Nice argues the £27,000 a year the drug costs for each patient is poor value for money.

John, of The Copse, Billericay, is one of thousands who may be affected, though it remains unclear if Sutent prescriptions would be stopped completely, or if existing patients would be allowed to keep their lifeline.

For 21 months, John has benefited from the way Sutent halts the growth of cancer cells. His tumours have shrunk, improving his quality of life immeasurably. More important, for a man once given months to live, he now has a future.

“My condition now is as good as it has been for five years,” he said. “I am able-bodied. I can get around and do things I couldn’t before I started taking the drug.”

Jim’s battle with cancer started when doctors suspected he had non-malignant tumour on his hip bone. That initial diagnosis was terribly wrong – his kidney was riddled with cancer.

Over the next three years, his condition worsened. He underwent several operations, but tumours grew in his back and neck, pressing on his spine and affecting the feeling in his hands.

John said: “Before long, I would have been a quadraplegic. I could feel a tingling in my fingers and the tumours were growing every day.

“I was given a 50 per cent chance of lasting six months.”

Then John discovered Sutent. Prof Martin Gore, of the Royal Marsden Hospital, in London, secured NHS funding for John, as an exceptional case.

Since that day, in November 2006, his life improved massively, so the prospect of coming off Sutent is not one upon which John cares to dwell.

He insists his primary concern is for others who might not get the drug in future.

He said: “You cannot put a value on someone’s life. These drugs are the first-line treatment in the USA and Europe. By restricting them, you will be restricting oncologists and putting a price on people’s heads.

“We are worth more than that.”

Prof Peter Littlejohns, Nice’s clinical and public health director, has described such decisions as “some of the hardest in public life”.

But he added: “NHS resources are not limitless and Nice has to decide which treatments represent best value to the patient ,as well as the NHS.

“Although these treatments are clinically effective, regrettably, the cost to the NHS is such they are not a cost-effective use of NHS resources.”

His sole crumb of consolation is the possibility drug companies may soon cut prices – two firms have recently hinted at this.

“We will be happy to consider these proposals once they have been reviewed and considered suitable for the NHS,” he added.

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