The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry has responded vigorously to the call issued this week by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence for the industry to question the development costs of new medicines.

The challenge came in a letter to The Times newspaper from NICE chief executive Sir Andrew Dillon, in which he commented on the widely-quoted estimate that it now takes around £1.2 billon to bring a new medicine to market. Sir Andrew writes that this cost figure “seems to go up each time it’s estimated,” and adds: “if it really does cost £1.2 billion to develop a new drug, the question the pharmaceutical industry must be able to answer is this: are you absolutely confident that it needs to be?”

ABPI chief executive Stephen Whitehead has described Sir Andrew’s letter as “disappointing,” and warns that his reference to the UK’s “advantage” in biopharmaceutical R&D is in fact “an advantage which is fragile and under constant challenge.”

‘This can be seen in how the UK share of global clinical trials has fallen from 6% to 1.4% in only 10 years. The consequences of this is the closure of six research sites in the UK over the past six years,” says Mr Whitehead.

Nor, he adds, is it “credible” to suggest that the UK industry should invest heavily to discover valuable medicines “that are then not made available to UK patients because of NICE’s decisions.”

“The biopharmaceutical industry has proven that it delivers solutions to healthcare challenges but the conservative and resource-intensive approach taken by NICE adds significant cost to the development of medicines,” says Mr Whitehead. “Through its decisions, NICE has a role in repeatedly denying patients in the UK access to medicines that are routinely available in other countries. NICE also cannot ignore the role it has in supporting economic growth and rewarding scientific innovation and R&D,” he adds.

Sir Andrew’s letter was triggered by a comment piece by The Times’ business editor, Ian King, which quoted the £1.2 billion development costs figure from a Times Online article written by Pfizer UK managing director Jonathan Emms.

Mr Emms said the tools used by NICE to assess medicines “are blunt ones with widely-recognised limitations,” and he urged Ministers to “look again at the way NICE makes its decisions to ensure innovation is better recognised and used.”