October 5, 2005

Breast cancer drug move gives hope to UK patients

LONDON (Reuters) - Women diagnosed with early stage breast
cancer are to be tested to see if they are suitable for
treatment with the drug Herceptin, made by Switzerland's Roche
Holding AG, Britain said on Wednesday.

The move could mean that the lives of 1,000 women a year in
England could be saved -- the same number saved by the national
breast screening program, the Department of Health (DOH) said.

Recent research has shown Herceptin can help patients with
early stage breast cancer and campaigners have been fighting
for it to be widely available on the state-funded National
Health Service (NHS).

The drug is currently only licensed for use in women with
advanced breast cancer, although doctors can use their
discretion to prescribe it in exceptional other cases.

Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt said that from Wednesday
all women diagnosed with early stage breast cancer would be
tested for suitability for treatment with Herceptin.

But women who have been diagnosed before Wednesday will not
automatically be tested for the HER-2 receptor, which indicates
whether a patient may benefit from Herceptin.

Once the drug is licensed for use in early stage breast
cancer it will be fast-tracked for use throughout the
state-funded NHS.

Roche expects to file a European application for early use
of Herceptin in February next year.

"Herceptin has the potential to save many women's lives and
I want to see it in widespread use on the NHS," Hewitt said.

Hewitt has already ordered Britain's drugs watchdog,the
National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence to fast
track its assessment of the wider use of the drug.

Of the 35,000 women diagnosed with breast cancer in England
each year, 20,000 would be suitable for testing, the DOH said.
Some 5,000 may benefit from taking Herceptin.

Earlier this week, former nurse Barbara Clark won a legal
battle to be given Herceptin.

Clark had threatened to use the Human Rights Act to force
her doctors to prescribe the drug after she had been told she
could not have the treatment because her cancer was not at an
advanced stage.

Campaigners said they were concerned that the drug was not
expected to be licensed until next year.

"Patients need to understand that the drug is not expected
to be licensed until July 2006 at the earliest,," said
Professor John Toy, medical director of Cancer Research UK. "A
process to make the drug available as quickly as possible after
licensing is especially important given this delay."