Women with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer have been given access to a “potentially life-saving” drug after NHS bosses struck a deal with its manufacturer.
Up to 1,600 women a year will be able to get pembrolizumab, which has the potential to leave some of those who take it completely free of cancer, NHS England said.
The drug – a form of immunotherapy – will be given to women with triple negative breast cancer, for which few treatments currently exist. Triple negative breast cancer patients have a shorter survival time than women with other forms of the disease and it is a particularly common form in those under 40, black women, and those who have inherited the BRCA gene.
Amanda Pritchard, the chief executive of NHS England, said the rollout of “an innovative, potentially life-saving treatment for one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer” was “fantastic news” and represented “a hugely significant moment for women”.
“It will give hope to those who are diagnosed and prevent the cancer from progressing, allowing people to live normal, healthy lives,” she added.
The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has approved the drug in final draft guidance after successful negotiations over its price between NHS England and its maker, the pharmaceutical company MSB.
The health watchdog, which advises the NHS on which treatments are effective and represent value for money, has given the green light to the drug being used alongside chemotherapy to shrink a breast tumour before surgery, or on its own, after operations on adults with triple negative early breast cancer who are at high risk of it recurring or of locally advanced breast cancer.
“This new treatment can potentially lead to any detectable cancer disappearing by the time of surgery, meaning patients will then possibly face less invasive, breast-conserving surgery,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of the charity Breast Cancer Now.
“Furthermore, by significantly reducing the likelihood of breast cancer recurring or spreading to other parts of the body where it becomes incurable secondary breast cancer, this treatment brings previous hope of more lives potentially being saved from this devastating disease.”
Nice said that the drug is “an additional lifeline” for those with triple negative breast cancer. It accounts for about one in five diagnoses of breast cancer but about one in four deaths from it.
“Clinical trial evidence shows that adding pembrolizumab to chemotherapy before surgery, then continuing with pembrolizumab alone after surgery increases the chance that the cancer will disappear. It also increases the time before any cancer recurs,” Nice said.
But, it said: “It is not clear if pembrolizumab increases how long people live.”
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Nice added that the fact that triple negative breast cancer has a higher risk of recurrence than other forms of the disease, and the scarcity of proven treatments, helped persuade the approval.
The drug has been found to be effective in clinical trials in Britain. Lauren Sirey, an NHS nurse who received it as part of a trial at Barts Health trust in London, has been free of her cancer for almost five years after receiving it in 2017.
“Four months before my partner and I were due to marry I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer aged 31. I was offered the chance to participate in a clinical trial and am delighted to hear that this treatment has now been approved for use in the NHS,” she said.
“This treatment allowed me to make a full recovery and I’m now approaching my five-year all-clear.”