Brain cancer drug faces hard sell

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The Independent Online
A DRUG licensed yesterday for the commonest type of brain cancer could ease the suffering of up to 2,000 people in Britain - if they can get hold of it.

Temozolomide is being described as the most important brain cancer treatment for 20 years by the Cancer Research Campaign (CRC), whose scientists discovered it.

In trials, patients have seen a sharp improvement in symptoms but its effect on survival is so far limited, extending life by about three months.

Fears were raised yesterday that some health authorities and NHS trusts might resist using the drug because of the cost - pounds 1,000-pounds 2,000 per month per patient.

Temozolomide is marketed under the brand name Temodal by the drug company Schering-Plough, which negotiated the worldwide rights with the CRC's commercial arm, Cancer Research Campaign Technology.

John Simmons, Schering-Plough's marketing development manager, admitted being concerned that some patients who could benefit from the drug would be denied it.

"This isn't going to be a cheap drug, and unfortunately this will restrict its availability. There will be some NHS trusts who say, `Sorry, our budget for cancer treatment is this and we can't expand it any further'," he said.

Professor Gordon McVie, director general of the CRC, compared Temodal with Taxol, a drug for ovarian cancer whose availability has been restricted by certain health authorities.

He said: "I have no doubt whatsoever there is a pharmo-economic benefit from this drug. It's early days. We don't know what it does in other cases of cancer and we're watching very carefully. We need a mechanism in this country to cope with our success. I don't think patients should be penalised."

The drug was licensed yesterday by the European Medical Evaluation Agency for treatment in Britain and Europe of advanced cases of a type of brain cancer called glioblastoma, which affects about 2,000 patients a year in the UK. The disease, which accounts for some two-thirds of brain cancers, is almost always fatal.

Professor McVie said future studies would show what effect the drug had on early-stage brain cancer and whether it should be combined with other treatments. It was possible that combining temozolomide with radiotherapy, currently the main treatment, could significantly improve survival.

A study was also under way to investigate whether temozolomide could help patients with skin cancer.