Patricia Hewitt, the UK secretary of state for health, has ordered fast-track assessments of two cancer therapies by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, on the back of concerns that patients were being denied access to treatment [[27/05/05b]].

Specifically, Ms Hewitt is making an early referral for Roche’s Herceptin (trastuzumab) in the treatment of early breast cancer, as well as the Millennium Pharmaceuticals’ multiple myeloma therapy, Velcade (bortezomib). Velcade was launched in the UK earlier this year [[20/05/04g]], but Herceptin is not yet licensed in the UK in the treatment of early breast cancer. Back in 2002, NICE recommended the drug should be made available in the UK for women with an advanced form of breast cancer [[15/03/02a]], but came under fire for taking too long to come to its decision. And this criticism has not abated. A report from cancer information charity, CancerBACUP, revealed that just one third of women who may benefit from the drug were actually receiving it [[16/10/03b]]. This sparked a pledge from the UK’s Department of Health that new measures would ensure an end to so-called postcode prescribing [[15/06/04a]]. NICE faced the wrath of CancerBACUP again in May this year, which slammed the “unacceptable delays” in the review process and continuing postcode prescribing [[27/05/05b]].

Ms Hewitt explained that the move would allow NICE to begin the preliminary work on the drugs’ clinical- and cost-effectiveness, so that it could “react as soon as possible after the drug is licensed.” Roche is expected to apply for a license extension for Herptin after completing a clinical data analysis. “Once an application is made it could take as little as two to three months for an extended licence to be issued,” she added.

“It’s important that the entire system of assessing cancer treatments is speeded up, from licensing to NICE guidance for use in the NHS,” said Derryn Borley, CancerBACUP’s head of cancer support services.