£50 million fund in new funding for cancer drugs in England will be made available from this October to next April, when the coalition government’s pledged Cancer Drugs Fund is due to start up, the government announced yesterday.

The interim funding will give “thousands” of cancer patients access to drugs which their doctors say they need but which are not already routinely available on the NHS, ministers said. Drugs which will become newly-available include treatments which the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has rejected, or has not yet given a final appraisal, plus those being prescribed in “off-label” or “near-label” circumstances.

The announcement was made at the same time as National Cancer Director Professor Sir Mike Richards’ long-awaited report on variations in drug usage across 14 countries - including the UK - was published. His findings show, as expected, that while the UK has high levels of use of medicines in some major areas such as cardiovascular disease, the nation’s uptake of innovative new cancer medicines falls behind other European countries (see story today).

Commenting on Sir Mike’s findings, Health Secretary Andrew Lansley said it was a “scandal” that while the UK is strong in cancer research and participation in cancer trials, National Health Service (NHS) patients do not always see the benefits of if this research swiftly enough.

“Patients should have access to innovative cancer drugs that can extend or improve their quality of life and which their doctors have recommended, which is why I’m determined to take action now,” said Mr Lansley.

“This funding will help ensure that this happens, and that we meet the needs of cancer patients immediately while we set about our longer-term plans to change the way we pay for drugs so that patients get better access to medicines and the NHS gets better value for money,” he added.

The £50 million funding has been raised by scrapping the previous Labour government’s Personal Care at Home Bill - which would have enabled those with the greatest care needs to be offered free personal care at home – and will be made available through clinically-led regional panels from October.

Industry leaders welcomed the interim fund, with Alison Clough, director of commercial and communications at the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI), pointing out that sustaining the rapid adoption of new medicines is important to promote continued R&D. “Steps to ensure patients receive appropriate medicines need to be part of the implementation of the reforms in the NHS,” she added.

Patient groups also applauded the move but called on the government to ensure that the funding is used to ensure that patients with rarer cancers get better access to treatment. It is “simply not acceptable” that these patients are currently being penalised because of the type of cancer they have, said Mike Hobday, head of policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, who added that a YouGov poll for Macmillan has shown that 90% of people support people with rarer cancers having the same access to drugs as people with more common cancers, even though it would cost the NHS more.

Andrew Wilson, chief cxecutive of the Rarer Cancers Foundation (RCF) added that the announcement “will give a boost to the thousands of cancer patients for whom April 2011 would have been too late,” and he called on all NHS organizations, in the period up to October, “to honour the spirit of this announcement and immediately begin funding the cancer treatments which clinicians wish to prescribe.”

- The government will be consulting on it plans for the final Cancer Drugs Fund later this year, subject to the outcome of the Spending Review on October 20, and plans to introduce value-based pricing (VBP) for medicines from 2014, after the expiry of the current Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS).

Speaking to journalists yesterday Earl Howe, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Quality, described the £200 million pledged by the government for the Fund as “our aspirational figure.”

“I can’t tell you today what the figure will be but from next April there will be a Cancer Drugs Fund,” he said.