Red tape may deny breast cancer victims 5p-a-day pill

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

By: Sophie Borland


Pills costing just 5p a day could save the lives of thousands of breast cancer sufferers, according to research.

Drugs used to prevent bone thinning slash the risk of dying from tumours by 20 per cent, researchers found.

They say that if the pills – called bisphosphonates – were routinely given to women with breast cancer they would prevent 1,300 deaths a year and ‘several thousands’ within a decade.

But campaigners say there is a danger the drugs will remain ‘sitting on the shelf’ in chemists because NHS red tape prevents doctors from routinely prescribing them for breast cancer

Bisphosphonates are currently only ‘licensed’ – passed as safe – to be used for osteoporosis and for some women whose cancer has weakened the bone. Campaigners are urging the Government and the NHS to change the guidelines to enable doctors to routinely offer them to all women diagnosed with breast cancer after the menopause.

About one in eight women develop breast cancer, leading to 50,000 new cases and 11,500 deaths every year. Although survival rates have substantially improved in recent decades, about 20 per cent of women are expected to die within five years of their diagnosis.

The majority of breast cancers occur in women after they have been through the menopause.

Researchers at Oxford and Sheffield universities looked at the records of 18,766 women with breast cancer, from 26 previously published trials. They found that those over 50 who happened to be taking bisphosphonates for at least two years were 18 per cent less likely to die, the Lancet reported.

n addition, the drugs slashed the risks of the cancer spreading to the bone by 28 per cent and the likelihood of it returning by 14 per cent.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at the charity Breast Cancer Now, said: ‘This hotly awaited, comprehensive study reveals that bisphosphonates could potentially save the lives of around a thousand women each year in the UK alone.

‘We believe that this is one of the most important steps forward in breast cancer treatment since the introduction of Herceptin over ten years ago,’ she said, referring to the drug that proved effective against an aggressive type of tumour. ‘And this time we’re talking about a few pence rather than thousands of pounds, and millions saved by the NHS.’

But Baroness Morgan said she feared the drugs would never be licensed to be used for breast cancer, adding: ‘This treatment therefore runs the risk of sitting on the shelf, and not realising its full benefit for the 34,000 women who could be eligible to take it each year.’

Researcher Professor Robert Coleman, of the University of Sheffield, said if the drugs were offered to all women diagnosed with breast cancer after the menopause, ‘several thousand’ lives would be saved in a decade.

But unless bisphosphonates – which cost less than £10 for a six-month course – are passed as ‘safe’ by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency or the NHS watchdog NICE, doctors may be unwilling to offer them to women in case they suffer side effects.