Breast cancer drug may be 'too expensive'

A senior member of the Government's medicines watchdog has warned that the breast cancer drug Herceptin may be unaffordable by the NHS.

The drug was granted a licence for use in early breast cancer by the European Medicines Agency yesterday, presenting NHS trusts with the dilemma of whether to fund it.

The licence was granted in 53 days, the quickest it has ever happened, after the agency agreed to speed up its process in response to public and political demand for the drug.

Professor Ian Smith, head of the breast cancer unit at the Royal Marsden Hospital, London, said: "For women with HER2-positive breast cancer, Herceptin is one of the most important developments we have ever seen, so the licence is excellent news for these women throughout the UK."

But the cost of the drug has alarmed holders of the NHS's purse strings, who have to balance competing budget demands.

Herceptin is being assessed by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), the Government body which decides which drugs should be recommended for use on the NHS on the basis of their cost effectiveness. A decision is expected "in a matter of weeks", Andrew Dillon, the chief executive of Nice, said yesterday.

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