U-turn on eye drug will save the sight of thousands

Published on The Guardian, by Sarah Boseley, health editor, December 14 2007.

Thousands of people will be saved from going blind following a U-turn by the government’s drug advisory body, which will allow them to get an expensive new treatment on the NHS.

The National Institute for Healthcare and Clinical Excellence NICE will today row back on its controversial draft advice in June that stated people must be allowed to go blind in one eye before they can have injections of Lucentis – a drug for wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD). Nice had also said that only people with certain types of lesions caused by the disease should get the drug, which would limit availability to 20% of patients.

Nice took the stand because of the cost of Lucentis, which is about £760 an injection. A full course for one eye could have cost £18,300. But the outcry from doctors and patient groups – Nice received 13,000 letters of protest – has led to a rethink and the manufacturer, Novartis, has offered a compromise deal on the cost …

… “Fourteen injections should result in stable vision for most patients and improved vision for around a quarter of patients,” said Andrew Dillon, the chief executive of Nice.

The NHS is currently funding an unprecedented trial comparing Lucentis with a second drug, Avastin, which is similar but licensed only for bowel cancer. Split into tiny doses, it is a fraction of the cost. If Avastin proves to be equally beneficial, the NHS may look for ways to use Avastin instead of Lucentis.

Wet AMD occurs when abnormal blood vessels growing behind the retina leak blood and fluid, raising the macula from its normal place in the back of the eye. (full text).

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