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Plans for innovating cancer drug scrapped due to high price

Plans to put in place an innovative  new drug to treat head and neck cancer has been scrapped after NICE published guidelines stating that the drug was not cost effective.

NICE assessed the drug, nivolumab, for its effectiveness in treating different types of cancer and found that for some types, such as kidney cancer, it was effective.

However, evidence suggests that in the case of head and neck cancers the drug’s costs outweigh tis benefits, and NICE has not been able to recommend it for these uses.

Professor Carole Longson, director of the health technology evaluation centre at institute, said: “We understand that treatment options in this area are limited, and it’s important to patients that treatments both extend and improve their quality of life.

“Evidence for nivolumab extending the long-term survival and quality of life for people with head and neck cancer is uncertain. Therefore, the additional costs for these potential benefits was considered too high for NHS use at present.”

Nivolumab, an immunotherapy drug, works by harnessing the power of the patient’s own immune system to destroy cancer cells.

It had previously been hailed as a ‘game changer’ for patients after success with improved survival rates in a phase III clinical trial.

But NICE has argued the costs are still too high for the drug to be considered as a routine method of treatment.

However, this did not necessarily spell the end for nivolumab, as Longson added: “The draft guidance is now out for consultation, and I think it’s important that consultees, including the company, healthcare professionals and the public submit their comments on this draft recommendation so that they can be considered by the committee.”

The Institute for Cancer Research (ICR) has already said today’s judgement is disappointing as it will mean doctors cannot offer the therapy to patients.

Professor of biological cancer therapies at the ICR, Kevin Harrington, said that head and neck cancers were extremely difficult to treat and options for patients were limited.

“Nivolumab is an expensive drug but it is also the only treatment shown in a phase III trial to improve survival for this group of patients – and it did so without worsening patients’ quality of life, and with fewer side-effects than other options,” he explained.

“It’s crucial that talks on the drug’s availability continue and ultimately that this decision is reversed, since otherwise patients face missing out on a genuinely effective treatment simply because of cost.”

And Professor Paul Workman, chief executive of the ICR, said: “This decision denies patients a genuine breakthrough treatment that makes a real difference for people with relapsed or metastatic head-and-neck cancer.

“It is another example, and a particularly stark one, of an innovative cancer therapy not being made available on the NHS because of cost. I’d urge NICE and the manufacturer to work together to reach an agreement on price so that this decision can be overturned as soon as possible.”

He also called on NICE to take greater account of innovation in its appraisal processes to give drugs like nivolumab a better chance of being rolled out to patients.

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