UK researchers are involved in nearly a fifth of the drug candidates under development worldwide for breathing disorders, says the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

According to ABPI data, 49 or 19% of the 262 medicines currently in development around the world are for diseases such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Of those 49 projects, UK researchers are playing a part in eight, the association notes. “These figures show that British scientists are in the forefront of the fight against breathing disorders,” comments ABPI director general Dr Richard Barker.

But he also voices the Association’s growing concern that, quite apart from the high rate of attrition for medicines in development, the additional hurdle of demonstrating cost-effectiveness to qualify for National Health Service (NHS) coverage in the UK will keep many innovations in the field from benefiting the very patients they are aimed at.

“At the moment, the need for medicines to prove cost-effectiveness – based on overly narrow criteria – is preventing many such medicines from reaching patients,” Dr Barker contends. “It is a major disincentive to companies and other organisations to continue to research medicines if they are not to be utilised fully.”

Figures just published by the Office of Health Economics show that breathing disorders are responsible for an increasing number of deaths in the UK, Dr Barker points out. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is estimated to cost the NHS more than £800 million a year as well as resulting in an annual loss of 24 million working days.

“Given the increase in asthma and COPD, and deaths associated with these diseases, the development of new medicines is essential to save lives,” Dr Barker says. “This has been recognised by the pharmaceutical industry and other researchers, who have made the UK a world leader in this area.”

Making new drugs available
It is now down to the government and the NHS “to make sure that medicines which make it through the regulatory process are then available to patients”, he insists.

Dr Barker's comments echo the recent suggestion by Novartis UK chief executive Subhanu Saxena in a newspaper interview that companies may stop launching new medicines in the UK because of multiple barriers to entry in that market.

One reason for Novartis' disgruntlement with the UK environment was a bad experience with its new asthma treatment Xolair. Although the product was launched in the UK in 2005, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) did not issue its final appraisal for Xolair until November last year, despite the drug having been assessed under NICE’s single technology appraisal fast-track programme.