Many cancer patients are dying as a result of having to wait for the National Institute for Clinical Excellence to appraise potentially life-saving treatments, according to a damning “Dossier of Delay” compiled by cancer information charity, CancerBACUP.

As well as slamming the “unacceptable delays” in the NICE review process, the charity criticises the continuing problem of postcode prescribing and says that the availability of what it terms “outstanding treatments”, such as Roche’s Herceptin (trastuzumab), for early breast cancer could take years unless the system is reformed. Herceptin might not be widely available on the UK’s NHS until 2009 under the current NICE process, while guidance on Sanofi-Aventis’ Eloxatin (oxaliplatin), which can give a 23% reduction in the risk of colon cancer returning within two years, is not due until May 2006, the charity claims. Guidance on a third, ImClone's Erbitux (cetuximab) for head and neck cancers, which can give a 7% increase in survival rates over two years, is not due until 2009. NICE reportedly told CancerBACUP that the delays were due to funding and staffing issues.

Treatments take an average of a year to go through the NICE appraisal process, although some cancer drugs can take up to two years. CancerBACUP says these additional delays are unacceptable, and is calling for NICE to introduce a system of fast-tracking for cancer treatments which have shown significant results, such as Herceptin.

“When people read about these treatments in the newspapers, they ring us up wanting to know how soon they will be available,” CancerBACUP’s chief executive, Joanne Rule, said. “Sadly, we have to tell them that it could take years before they are widely available on the NHS. For many, that could be too late. We have to find a way of speeding up the time it takes for NICE to approve all cancer treatments and introduce a fast-tracking process for exceptional cancer treatments.” She added: “These delays compound existing problems of postcode prescribing of cancer treatments which we have highlighted in the past.”