Roche will not be seeking approval for its cancer drug Avastin for the treatment of the eye condition wet AMD, despite evidence to suggest that it has a similar efficacy to Novartis' Lucentis and could save the NHS millions of pounds a year.

Speaking to PharmaTimes World News, a spokesperson for Roche confirmed that there are no plans to pursue a licence for Avastin (bevacizumab) in this setting, as its focus remains within oncology, and that the firm does not support the drug's unlicensed use in the treatment of wet age-related macular degeneration.

And yet, the National Health Service could save itself a massive £84.5 million every year if it used Avastin instead of Novartis' Lucentis (ranibizumab), which is the only NICE-approved treatment for the condition, researchers are claiming.

The results of a two-year trial - called IVAN and published in The Lancet - comparing the two drugs are now in, and, essentially, they show that they have a similar efficacy in the treatment of wet AMD, a leading cause of blindness.

The crux of the issue, however, is that Avastin is not licensed for use in this setting while Lucentis is, thereby presenting a rather large headache for Novartis as many doctors have jumped ship because of the potential cost saving of using the former 'off-label'.

Avastin costs around £60 a shot, while Lucentis' price tag is thought to be more than 10 times higher at £700. 

Novartis has already been on the brink of a court battle with one particular PCT cluster over its policy of favouring the use of Avastin over Lucentis, although the case was later settled when the drug giant significantly dropped the price of its product.

Switch for 'significant' savings

IVAN researcher Professor Simon Harding, from the University of Liverpool and the St Paul's eye unit at Royal Liverpool university hospital, has, long with his peers on the team, recommended that the NHS "switch from Lucentis to Avastin and make significant savings to be reinvested in patient care".

But Novartis, unsurprisingly, is taking a different stance on the issue. It argues that while data from IVAN did show similar visual acuity gains for the two treatments, it "does not show that the efficacy of bevacizumab is equivalent to ranibizumab, the current standard of care".

Also, it pointed to recently updated professional guidance issued by the General Medical Council, that an unlicensed medicine should only be used when there is no licensed treatment available. Though this may well fall on deaf ears as health service strives to cut costs to in order to meet demand.