The official launch of a £200 million a year Cancer Drugs Fund has received a broad welcome given that it promises to give patients better access to medicines considered most appropriate by clinicians, side-stepping the usual cost-effectiveness channels.

The birth of the annual fund follows the successful £50 million interim fund, which, the government claims, since its launch in October last year has helped more than 2,000 cancer patients in England get access to potentially life-extending drugs.

UK drug giant GlaxoSmithKline has applauded the move, calling it "a hugely important step forward for the 1.8 million people in England who are currently living with cancer", and noting that "empowering clinicians to use the Fund for any cancer medicine that would not otherwise be funded by the NHS means patients may now be offered further treatment options with the potential to extend or improve life".

GSK said it is hoping patients will be able to continue accessing its oncology drugs Tyverb (lapatinib) and Arzerra (ofatumumab) through the CDF, after the Institute rejected the former for breast cancer and the latter for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia on the NHS.

Rare cancers

Mike Hobday, Head of Policy at Macmillan Cancer Support, also pointed out that the Fund is "particularly important for those with a rarer cancer, who have historically lost out on getting drugs on the NHS", as they are "often more expensive as they can be harder to develop and are available for smaller populations".

He suggests that the fund prioritise rare cancers treatments, as this could be "incentive for more research and investment, and be a key step towards increasing access to treatments for all cancer patients".

But elsewhere, despite a largely positive reception, concerns over the Fund in practice, particularly with regard to the potential for so-called postcode prescribing, are growing.

Earlier this year, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry warned that while the CDF has improved access and consistency in decision-making in some areas, it could worsen regional variations in access to innovative medicines unless the right mechanisms are put in place.

And these concerns were strengthened after a survey by Swiss pharma Roche found strong regional variations in use of the interim throughout the South of England.

Problems with access

The survey found that, in the region, half of doctors wishing to access the interim fund were not able to do so while more than a quarter were put off by the complicated application process, according to media reports.

The ABPI says that the Department of Health should provide the NHS with detailed guidance to ensure nationwide consistency in the Fund’s implementation.

Hobday agrees: "To prevent a postcode lottery the government could develop best practice advice to complement national guidance, and ensure this knowledge is shared between different regions to prevent this happening with the full funding", he said.

However, Professor Adrian Newland, Director of the North East London Cancer Network, said in his region there has been an "increased access to drugs for patients with rarer cancers through the Cancer Drug Fund, and a reduction in the postcode prescribing of these drugs".