Cancer patients will die over new drug delays, say doctors

Lifesaving drugs denied to seriously ill patients by slow HSE decision-making

Cancer patients will die as a result of delays in providing access to new drugs, doctors have said.

Dozens with advanced cancer are unable to access the latest blockbuster treatment because the Health Service Executive drugs group has not met to approve it.

This is despite the fact the drug, pembrolizumab (“pembro”), has been found to be safe and cost-effective and is available in many European countries.

About 100 patients who received the treatment since last year under a compassionate use programme are experiencing significantly improved health and reduced side-effects, but this programme has ended.

A similar access programme for a second drug, nivolumab, is due to end within days, leaving Irish cancer patients with no access to the latest immunotherapies.

Oncologist Prof John Crown said some of his patients would not survive unless they gained access to the "game-changing" new therapies quickly. "They may be dead or too sick to get it by the time a decision is made."

He blamed the failure to approve the drugs on the lack of a government in the spring, but added: "Minister for Health Simon Harris can now fix this with a stroke of his pen in two minutes."

Dr Kyran Bulger said his patients at the Midland Regional Hospital in Tullamore have experienced a "marvellous response" to pembro.

He gives the example of a woman with advanced lung cancer: “We’d given her everything we could but she was going to die in a month or two. Within a month of getting pembro, she got well and now, eight months on, she is back to full normality.”

Clear cancer

Pembro, which costs $150,000 (€134,000) a year in the US, appears to clear cancer in previously fatal tumours in up to 40 per cent of cases.

Prof Crown pointed out Greece is providing it to cancer patients. The treatment has been recommended as cost-effective for the first-line treatment of melanoma. This means approval from the HSE is a rubber-stamping exercise.

The HSE did not respond this week to questions but it is understood its drug group has not met since early March.

Dr Bulger said oncologists will be “in real trouble” when the access programme for nivolumab closes next week.

“We’ll have no options.”