James Jopling: Fairer drugs price can save lives

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Every year 1000 women lose their lives to secondary breast cancer in Scotland – and there’s almost nothing we can do to stop it. Secondary breast cancer is when the disease has spread to other parts of the body and becomes incurable.

So the recent news that the Scottish Medicines Consortium (SMC) rejected the pioneering secondary breast cancer drug Kadcyla for routine use on the NHS in Scotland was particularly disheartening.

This latest rejection is just one symptom indicating a much wider problem: the inability of cancer patients in Edinburgh and the Lothians, Scotland and the rest of the UK to access the drugs they need.

Kadcyla is used for a certain type of secondary breast cancer and can offer patients on average an additional six months of life, often with limited side effects. This means that patients are able to enjoy a good quality of life – sometimes continuing with work, taking holidays or simply enjoying as much precious time as they can with their loved ones.

However, following the SMC’s ­decision, it is now routinely out of reach for both the women that need it and the oncologists that want to be able to provide it.

One thing is clear: many new drugs are too expensive right now and only the Scottish and UK governments, working with and putting pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to bring down prices, can find the long-term solutions we need. No public health system can cope with these continually higher prices and no government can resolve this on their own.

Responsibility for negotiating the price of drugs lies with the UK government in Westminster so we need to be sure this is on the agendas of Scottish MPs. Ahead of the general election next year, we are calling on all political parties to commit to solving these issues through our Demand a Fair Price campaign. We’re urging them to work with pharmaceutical companies, stakeholders and charities to create a new system which will ensure all cancer patient across the UK can access the drugs they need at a fair price to the NHS.

New and innovative drugs like Kadcyla are very sophisticated and take many years to develop.

The pharmaceutical company involved needs to recoup that investment and make a profit like any commercial organisation.

However, we don’t know exactly how pharmaceutical companies reach the prices that they do so it is difficult to say whether they need to be as expensive as they are.

As we learn more about cancer, we are becoming better at targeting treatments to specific cancer tumour types. As we manage to tailor treatments more and more it means that the patient group who can benefit from a specific treatment will become smaller. This inevitably means that drugs will be more expensive. In addition, as drugs become more sophisticated, more research will be required to get the drugs to patients. This also means that the drugs will be more expensive.

So it’s clear we need a solution – if there was an easy one, we’d have it by now. But it shouldn’t be impossible to put a price that is fair to all involved on life-extending drugs that are desperately needed by people living with terminal cancer. That is surely what patients and families across Edinburgh and the Lothians deserve?

You can join the campaign at http://www.breakthrough.org.uk/demandafairprice/

James Jopling is director for Scotland at Breakthrough Breast Cancer