Women with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer have been given access to a “potentially life-saving” drug after NHS bosses reached a deal with its manufacturer.
Up to 1,600 women a year will be able to receive pembrolizumab, which has the potential to make some of those who take it completely cancer-free, 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. Patients with triple-negative breast cancer 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, chief executive of NHS England, said the launch 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 have been diagnosed and prevent cancer from progressing, allowing people to live normal, healthy lives,” she added.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has approved the drug in its final draft of guidelines after successful negotiations over its price between NHS England and its manufacturer, 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 to be used alongside chemotherapy to shrink a breast tumor before surgery, or on its own after operations in adults with triple. Negative early breast cancer, who are at high risk of recurrence or locally advanced breast cancer.
“This new treatment could potentially lead to the eradication of any detectable cancer by the time of surgery, meaning patients will face less invasive, breast-conserving surgery,” said Delyth Morgan, chief executive of breast cancer charity Now.
“Furthermore, by significantly reducing the likelihood that breast cancer will recur or spread to other parts of the body where it becomes an incurable secondary breast cancer, this treatment brings earlier hope for potentially saving more lives from this devastating disease.” .”
Nice said the drug is “an additional lifeline” for those with triple-negative breast cancer. It accounts for about one in five breast cancer diagnoses, but about one in four deaths from it.
“Evidence from clinical trials shows that adding pembrolizumab to chemotherapy before surgery, then continuing with pembrolizumab alone after surgery increases the chance that the cancer will go away. It also increases the time before any cancer recurs,” Nice said.
But, he said, “It’s not clear whether pembrolizumab increases how long people live.”
Nice added that the fact that triple-negative breast cancer has a higher risk of recurrence than other forms of the disease, and the lack of proven treatments, helped convince approval.
The drug has been found to be effective in clinical trials in Britain. Lauren Sirey, an NHS nurse who got it as part of a trial at Barts Health Trust in London, has been free of her cancer for almost five years after getting it in 2017.
“Four months before my partner and I got married, I was diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer at the age of 31. I was offered the opportunity to take part in a clinical trial and I am delighted to hear that this treatment has now been approved for use on the NHS,’ she said.
“This treatment allowed me to make a full recovery and I’m now approaching five years clean.”