Nivolumab, also known as Opdivo, is an immunotherapy drug which strengthens the body’s immune system. It works by targeting a protein on the surface of cells called PD-L1, which is involved in the body’s immune response to cancer.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) said the drug, which was made available to patients in Scotland 11 months ago, is now ready for lung cancer patients in England to use thanks to funding from the Cancer Drugs Fund (CDF) and a discount from the drug’s provider.
It will also be available to patients in Wales under separate arrangements that will see the drug funded within two months.
In November 2016, two patients submitted petitions with a total of 270,000 signatures urging NICE to approve the drug.
When the health body first reviewed Nivolumab, it said the evidence wasn’t strong enough to recommend it for routine NHS use. However, as the drug appeared to be more effective in some patients, NICE asked manufacturer Bristol-Myers Squibb to make it available with a discount while clinical trials continued.
Exact treatment costs depend on a person’s weight and their type of lung cancer, however prior to the discount being applied, a month’s treatment for someone weighing 73kg would have cost the NHS roughly £5,268, according to NICE.
The drug doesn’t cure cancer, however it could prolong life.
When asked how long it could extend life for, a spokesperson for NICE told HuffPost UK the evidence is unclear. “We’ve looked at it in two separate lung cancer indications and our committee said there were uncertainties in the evidence base so we don’t have a single answer for this,” they revealed.
The drug will be made available to 1,300 adults with advanced non-small cell lung cancer who have already been treated with chemotherapy. It will be given intravenously in hospital every two weeks.
In response to the news, Paula Chadwick, chief executive of the Roy Castle Lung Cancer Foundation, told HuffPost UK: “We see this decision as a victory for common sense, and long overdue.
“It has been hard to see patients who might have responded well to this drug being denied access just because they don’t live in Scotland.”
Professor Paul Workman, chief executive of the Institute of Cancer Research in London, also welcomed the decision.
“I’m pleased to see NICE and the drug’s manufacturer showing flexibility in reaching agreement on the drug’s approval,” he said.
“Initially the drug was priced far too high to ever have been judged cost-effective by NICE. Companies need to come to the table with their best, most realistic price offer right at the start, so we get new exciting drugs, such as immunotherapies, to patients as quickly as possible.”
Lung cancer remains the UK’s biggest cancer killer. Every year, 46,000 people are diagnosed with the disease and it claims around 36,000 lives each year.
Rose Gray, from Cancer Research UK, told HuffPost UK: “Immunotherapies such as Nivolumab are showing great promise for cancer patients, so it’s fantastic that this drug is now available to some lung cancer patients in England.
“This drug has been made available through the Cancer Drugs Fund, which was recently reformed to allow access to new drugs while more evidence is gathered on their effectiveness. These changes mean patients can now access innovative drugs like Nivolumab earlier and NICE can base its final decision on real-world evidence from the NHS in addition to information from clinical trials.”
Paula Chadwick continued: “Nivolumab represents a significant advance which can – in some cases - help lung cancer patients live longer and enjoy a better quality of life.
“We will always stand shoulder-to-shoulder with lung cancer patients, with their families and carers, and with all who work tirelessly to find better treatments. Today is a good day for us – but a better one for lung cancer patients. That has to be a good thing.”