February 4, 2009 / 12:32 AM / 10 years ago

UPDATE 1-UK body backs Pfizer cancer drug in change of tack

(Adds Pfizer comment)

By Ben Hirschler

LONDON, Feb 4 (Reuters) - Britain’s healthcare cost- effectiveness watchdog, in a partial change of heart, has decided Pfizer Inc (PFE.N) kidney cancer drug Sutent should be available to some patients on the state-run health service.

But three other drugs — Roche Inc’s ROG.VX Avastin, Bayer AG’s BAYG.DE Nexavar and Wyeth’s WYE.N Torisel — are still not recommended as first-line treatments, the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) said on Wednesday.

NICE caused a furor in August when it said “no” to all four of the expensive new medicines for advanced or metastatic kidney cancer.

That decision stoked controversy about the way NICE rations medicines on the National Health Service (NHS) in England and Wales, denying patients access to modern drugs that are used routinely in the United States and some other countries.

Since then, the government has introduced new guidelines designed to take into account the added value that society puts on end-of-life treatments, allowing for the change of tack.

“Although this final recommendation is subject to appeal, we very much hope it will form the basis of our guidance to the NHS,” said NICE Chief Executive Andrew Dillon. “The other three drugs we are looking at will be the subject of further consultation.”

The case highlights the tough choices the NICE has to make when deciding which drugs are worth offering to patients and which are too expensive.

“Today’s recommendation is an important step forward for kidney cancer patients and also for physicians in the U.K. who now have a proven treatment option for this difficult-to-treat cancer,” Garry Nicholson, president and general manager, of Pfizer’s oncology business unit, said in a statement.

Modern targeted drugs are revolutionising cancer care, yet they often increase survival by only a few months at a cost of many thousands of pounds. Drugmakers argue they need to charge a high price to make a reasonable return on risky research investment. Sutent is known generically as sunitinib, while Avastin, Nexavar and Torisel are bevacizumab, sorafenib and temsirolimus.

The cost of a six-week cycle of treatment with Sutent is 3,139 pounds ($4,467), but Pfizer has agreed a patient access scheme with the Department of Health under which the first cycle is provided free to the NHS.

For the last 10 years, the NICE has led the world in assessing the cost-effectiveness of drugs. Similar health technology assessment bodies are now springing up in other countries as payers seek a rational way to decide whether pricey new drugs for cancer and other complex disorders are worth using.

Worldwide, cancer drugs are the fastest-growing segment of the pharmaceuticals market with an expected growth rate twice that of medicines overall, according to healthcare consultancy IMS Health. (Additional reporting by Deena Beasley in Los Angeles, Editing by David Holmes and Andre Grenon)

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