MS drug sparks cash crisis fears

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A new drug treatment that will help thousands of people with multiple sclerosis (MS) could create a financial crisis for the health service, by costing tens of millions of pounds as budgets are further squeezed.

Results of a two-year international clinical trial, to be announced tomorrow at a medical conference in Turkey, show that about 10 per cent of MS sufferers benefit significantly when given injections of a drug called interferon beta three times a week.

However, the drug is very expensive. A full year's course for one person costs between pounds 8,000 and pounds 10,000. In the UK, where about 80,000 people have MS, that could mean an ongoing bill of pounds 80m to treat 8,000 or so patients who are not fully disabled. This poses a painful dilemma for the NHS, as sufferers currently cost it almost nothing because they are not prescribed full-time drugs.

"MS doesn't cost the NHS a lot of money because there was very little doctors could do," said Brian Gunson, a spokesman for Serono Laboratories, which makes interferon beta. "When people are disabled, it's a cost for social services."

In the past the NHS has resisted calls to provide interferon beta on the basis that clinical trials have produced mixed results. But the latest trial, with patients in nine countries including the UK, US and Australia, is scientifically copper-bottomed.

Professor Richard Hughes of Guy's Hospital said: "This trial is dramatically positive. This stuff does work."

The drug is likely to be licensed in the UK by March or April of next year.