A life-extending drug, which was denied to British writer AA Gill, will be immediately available on the NHS for some patients with his type of cancer.
The Sunday Times restaurant critic died aged 62 last December after battling lung cancer – which he called the “full English” of cancers – that had also spread to other parts of his body.
While he received chemotherapy on the NHS, he was denied access to the immunotherapy drug nivolumab, which can add months to life, because it was not approved on the NHS, with England’s drugs watchdog previously admitting it was too expensive. However, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has now approved the drug through the Cancer Drugs Fund while more evidence is gathered on its effectiveness.
During trials, nivolumab was hailed as a “spectacular” new class of drugs, which harness the body’s immune system. In one trial, more than half of patients who had just months to live saw deadly tumours shrink or completely disappear.
The drug, which has the brand name Opdivo and is manufactured by Bristol-Myers Squibb, should be made available to around 1,300 patients with lung cancer through the Cancer Drugs Fund, Nice’s draft guidance said.
Prof Carole Longson, from NICE, said: “We know that nivolumab is clinically effective for some people with lung cancer, but the full extent of its benefit is not clear.
“This new deal means that we can give patients access to what we know is a promising treatment whilst more evidence is gathered on its value.”Prof Paul Workman, from the Institute of Cancer Research, in London, said: “Immunotherapies are currently very expensive, but one of the ways to make them more cost-effective is to direct them to patients most likely to respond. Today’s decision is a welcome step in the right direction.
In his last column, AA Gill said his doctor told his partner Nicola Formby: “If he had insurance, I’d put him on immunotherapy – specifically, nivolumab. As would every oncologist in the First World. But I can’t do it on the National Health.
Gill added: “As yet, immunotherapy isn’t a cure, it’s a stretch more life, a considerable bit of life. More life with your kids, more life with your friends, more life holding hands, more life shared, more life spent on earth – but only if you can pay.”
What is Nivolumab?
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Nivolumab is a type of immunotherapy that blocks the ability of cancer to shield itself from the immune system.It works by interrupting the chemical signals that cancers use to convince the immune system they are healthy tissue.Patients can have nivolumab intravenously in hospital every two weeks.
It is used to treat advanced melanoma, blood cancer (Hodgkin lymphoma), kidney cancer and the most common type of lung cancer – non small-cell lung cancer.