Severe limits on the availability on the NHS of drugs for Alzheimer’s disease will jeopardise future research into such conditions in the UK, pharma industry leaders have warned.

A storm of protest broke over the National Institute for Clinical and Health Excellence (NICE) yesterday when it rejected appeals for the drugs to be available for those with early stages of the disease. NICE ruled that donepezil, galantamine and rivastigmine should only be considered as options in the treatment of people with moderate Alzheimer’s disease. A fourth drug, Lundbeck’s Ebixa (memantine), will be limited to clinical trials for those with moderate to severe symptoms.

The criticism from academics, charities and the industry was particularly strong because the treatments would cost as little as £900 per patient per year.

ABPI president Nigel Brooksby said the decision was flawed on the grounds of commonsense and “basic humanity”.

“It is flying in the face of commonsense to make patients wait until their condition deteriorates before treating them and it also disregards the basic humanity of a situation where patients who could benefit from a medicine are denied it,” he said.

Mr Brooksby continued: “This decision makes it harder for companies to justify devoting the enormous sums of money and resource necessary to research and develop new medicines, especially for conditions such as Alzheimer’s where there is so much more to be discovered about how best to treat it. Progress can best be made by building on our experience of such medicines in use and this decision hinders that way forward.”

Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing issued a statement warning that Alzheimer's sufferers who are denied drugs in the early stages need longer-term care and cost the NHS more. It could also increase the use of sedatives and increase the number of patients needing long-term care at an earlier stage in their illness.