Scots lose out in great cancer-drug divide

Picture: TSPL
Picture: TSPL
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PATIENTS in Scotland are three times less likely to get access to new cancer drugs than their counterparts in England, it has been claimed.

The disparity in access has prompted health charities to call for the body which approves medicines for NHS use to review the way it assesses drugs.

There are now 19 cancer drugs available on the NHS in England which are not offered to patients in Scotland, campaigners and a drugs company said yesterday.

They claim Scottish patients are being denied access to the “most effective treatments” which could prolong their lives.

The news came as the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) refused to approve a new drug Zelboraf, also known as Vemurafenib, for NHS use to treat malignant melanoma saying it was not cost-effective. This is despite a huge rise, 63 per cent, in cases of malignant melanoma in Scotland the last decade.

The move led to charity Melanoma Action and Support Scotland (MASScot) and drug maker Roche to question the methodology used by the SMC to make its decision on whether or not drugs can be used and paid for by the NHS.

Leigh Smith, chair of MASScot, said she felt “shock and despair” at the decision by the SMC, which is made up of NHS health experts and includes clinicians and representatives of the British pharmaceutical industry.

Ms Smith said: “No-one thinks the NHS has an infinite supply of money and this drug costs around £45,000 per patient a year. But trials showed it helped people quickly and extended their lives by more than a year.

“There has not been a new drug approved for melanoma in Scotland since the early 1970s. That is almost 40 years ago. At the same time rates of this cancer are shooting up. Melanoma is now the most common cancer in 15 to 34-year-olds in Scotland.

“It’s hugely unfair people in England can access free cancer drugs which people in Scotland can not. For that I blame the Scottish Government. There needs to be a major rethink of the way the SMC assesses drugs not just by looking at cost but at the benefits they can bring to so many people.”

The 19 drugs available free in England have been approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence – the equivalent of the SMC – or are available through the Cancer Drugs Fund. The fund, set up in 2011, provides £200 million to the NHS, but there are no plans for such a scheme in Scotland.

Ms Smith said: “I know a woman who spent £95,000 of her own retirement money on this life-prolonging drug which she would have been able to get for free if she lived in England. ”

Every year, around 2,000 people in Scotland are diagnosed with melanoma – 63 per cent more than in 2002 – and more than 250 people die from it.

John Melville, managing director of Roche UK, said the “lack of a mechanism” to fund end-of-life cancer medicines in Scotland meant patients in England were three times more likely to get access to a new cancer drugs that were not routinely available north of the Border.

A SMC spokesman said: “In the case of Zelboraf, we were disappointed not to be able to recommend the medicine due to weaknesses in the economic case made by the manufacturer and the balance of costs and benefits meant it was not considered to offer value for money.”