NHS spends big on cancer drugs developed with public funds

NHS spends big on cancer drugs developed with public funds

New analysis of the cost of leading cancer drugs to the NHS showed that £458 million was spent in 2017/18 on paying pharmaceutical companies for medicines developed with public funding, reports the Missing Medicines Coalition.

The figures, released by the Missing Medicines Coalition, show that three of the five most expensive cancer drugs to the NHS last year were developed from publicly-funded research. As a result the public are paying twice for medicines – first for the research and then in high prices to the drug industry. The publicly-researched cancer drugs include:

Trastuzumab - owned by Swiss multinational Roche, used to treat breast cancer. NHS England spent £163 million on buying the drug in 2017-18.

Rituximab - used to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukaemia. £153 million was paid for the drug last year, also to Roche.

Pembrolizumab - a drug owned by US drug giant Merck, used to treat some people with non small cell lung cancer, skin cancer and Hodgkin lymphoma. The NHS spent £142 million on this drug.

The basic technologies for producing all three of these medicines were developed by Greg Winter in the 1980s and 1990s, predominantly at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) in Cambridge, funded primarily by the UK Medical Research Council.

NHS England spent a record £18.2 billion on medicines in 2017-18, up 28 per cent since 2010. The medicines bill is still rising faster than the NHS budget even after the increases pledged by the Chancellor over the next five years in his autumn budget.

In 2017 breast cancer drug palbociclib was turned down by the NHS for being too expensive, but was later licenced after drug giant Pfizer came under pressure to lower the cost. UK patients cannot access the cystic fibrosis drug Orkambi because of the £104,000 per year price demanded by its manufacturer, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, despite years of negotiations.

Radhika Patel, campaigner at Global Justice Now, said: “Millions of people across the country run marathons, make donations or volunteer their time to help the fight against cancer, and every penny counts. So why is the government letting big pharma charge such vast amounts for drugs where public funding has paid for research?

"Medical research needs first and foremost to serve people, not lay the ground for pharmaceutical company profits. It is time for ministers to turn the corporate-driven model of drug production on its head and put people’s right to health first.”

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