Row over provision of eye drug
Allowing NHS doctors to offer a "cheap, safe and effective" drug to treat a common eye condition could release up to £102 million a year for other patient services but its access is being blocked by the pharmaceutical company behind it, health experts have claimed.
Wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is currently treated with Lucentis, but clinical leaders want Avastin, which is currently licensed for cancer treatment, to be given to wet AMD patients.
Trials have showed similar effectiveness in both drugs, but the British Medical Journal (BMJ) said it has revealed a campaign by the drug manufacturers to "undermine and divert attention" from the results of these trials.
Lucentis is estimated to cost £742 per dose to the NHS while Avastin is just £50 to £65 in comparison. Both drugs are owned by the same company, Roche, but Lucentis is marketed by Novartis in the UK.
The BMJ said that emails it obtained under a Freedom of Information request show that clinicians with ties to Novartis urged some primary care trusts to pull out of one trial, while there had been alleged attempts by the drug company to "derail" a second publicly funded UK trial.
Editor in chief Dr Fiona Godlee said pharmaceutical companies should not be able to block access to alternative drugs.
Even though Avastin is not licensed to treat wet AMD, many doctors do prescribe it to their patients for this and the BMJ said there is no record of any doctor being formally investigated for doing so.
Dr Godlee said: "Doctors and academics have carried out clinical trials despite threats and intimidation - and doctors leaders should follow suit and not allow themselves to be bullied either.
"Doctors' leaders also need to sort out the web of misinformation about drug prescribing that has been generated behind closed doors and is costing the NHS hundreds of millions of pounds a year by scaring doctors from using cheap and effective medicines."
One of the largest studies carried out in the field of eye disease in the UK saw scientists and eye specialists at 23 hospitals and UK universities analyse the results from a trial, named IVAN, involving 610 people with wet AMD.
Its authors said the findings indicated that the NHS could save £84.5 million a year, based on injecting 17,295 eyes each year, by switching from Lucentis to Avastin, and administering the treatment on an ''as-needed'' basis.
Wet AMD affects about 10% of all people with AMD, a common eye condition among people age 50 and older and a leading cause of blindness in older adults.
A spokesman for Novartis said: " Novartis is committed to high standards of ethical business conduct. Novartis does not tolerate unethical behaviour by its associates in any country, and has a comprehensive compliance program in place to help ensure that our associates comply with the Company's Code of Conduct and all applicable laws.
"Novartis strongly believes that patients have the right to the highest standard of care and that this right should be defended to promote safety and quality as the key drivers of health policy."