New hope on drug for multiple sclerosis

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A proposed NHS ban on the use of the only effective treatment for multiple sclerosis was shelved yesterday when the Government's advisory body on new medicines ruled that it must be reconsidered.

A proposed NHS ban on the use of the only effective treatment for multiple sclerosis was shelved yesterday when the Government's advisory body on new medicines ruled that it must be reconsidered.

The decision by the appeals committee of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence raised the hopes of thousands of patients with the wasting con-dition who are now denied the drug, beta interferon. Treatment costs an average of £10,000 a year.

But there is no certaintythe institute will overturn its original recommendation made in July, the most controversial in its short history, when it re-examines the evidence next month. In July the institute said the drug, which is only suitable for between 8,000 and 10,000 of the 85,000 patients with MS, was not cost effective and that the money spent on it would be better spent on measures to improve the quality of life of all MS sufferers.

An appeals panel of the institute has now ruled that the July decision of its appraisal committee was flawed because the committee had not "fully considered" the long-term benefits of beta interferon and had not given sufficient weight to evidence from brain scans. Although it did not question the judgment on the ground of cost effectiveness, it said the committee's reasoning was "not sufficiently transparent". It also criticised the recommendation that patients now prescribed the drug should continue while it was denied to others.

The appeals panel rejected some protests by patients' groups and the drug's manufacturers and specifically said it was "not perverse" of the committee to state that a big reduction in the cost of the drugs would be required before they could be cost effective.

The institute's appraisals committee will meet again on 13 December to reconsider its advice, which will be subject to further appeals. A final decision is expected early in the new year.

The move was welcomed by the Multiple Sclerosis Society, but its chief executive, Peter Cardy, said the delay would mean some patients who might have qualified for the treatment would never get it because their condition had deteriorated beyond the point where the drug was effective.

Mr Cardy said: "Many people with MS whose lives could have been transformed by the drugs may never receive them, in spite of the referral back. The delay will create even more misery for people already living with a devastating disease."

* The prospect of a range of new anti-impotence drugs to rival Viagra was raised yesterday after its maker, Pfizer, lost a High Court battle to protect the patent on its mode of action.

In a ruling that allows rival companies to develop new treatments that could damage Pfizer's long-term earnings from Viagra, the court ruled that Pfizer's 1993 "use patent" was invalid because the scientific knowledge on which it was based was already in the public domain.

The judgment in the case, brought by its American rival Lilly Icos, means other firms can develop drugs that work in the same way as Viagra, provided they do not use the same active ingredient, sildenafil. Sildenafil is still subject to Pfizer's product patent.

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