A bill under which the government would have gained responsibility for repurposing off-patent medicines showing promise in unlicensed indications has failed to make it past its second reading in parliament. 

The Off-Patent Drugs Bill, brought forward by Labour MP Nick Thomas-Symonds, is seeking to make the Secretary of State for Health responsible for securing new licences for unprotected medicines where there is evidence of their effectiveness in new indications, followed by an appraisal by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence to ensure widespread uptake by the NHS if appropriate.

Introducing the Bill to parliament last year, MP Jonathan Evans said the move could, over time, “revolutionise access to treatments across a whole range of medical conditions”, as currently, there is no incentive for pharmaceutical companies to seek new licenses for old drugs that are no longer patent protected, meaning that in cases where they could be effective against other diseases patients would only get access through off-label prescriptions.

Mia Rosenblatt, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Breast Cancer Campaign, said it is “incomprehensible that there are low-cost, effective treatments out there which are not routinely available to patients because of red-tape”, and a number of charities have long supported the bill for its potential to open up new approaches to treating a vast range of diseases while saving the National Health Service millions of pounds.

Support is also strong across political spectrum, but Conservative Minister Alistair Burt has essentially forced parliament to reject the Bill during its second reading in the House Of Commons. As the proposed law does not have government support it could only be debated for a set amount of time in parliament before being shelved, and Burt deliberately used up all of this time to “filibuster” the proposed Bill, “despite heckles and jeering from Labour, SNP, and Conservative benches,” according to The Independent.

Burt claims the government is instead pursuing a non-legislative solution to the issue of off-patent drugs, but Baroness Delyth Morgan, Breast Cancer Now’s chief executive, said the charity is “extremely disappointed” with the Bill’s demise. 

“The Government has let patients down and missed the chance to save lives at little cost to the NHS,” she said. “The Bill had widespread support across the medical community and from thousands of members of the public, and - in the absence of any serious alternative - we felt that it was the best option available to ensure fair, routine access to treatments across a whole range of medical conditions, including those that could prevent breast cancer developing and spreading”.