The campaign to improve access to off-patent and repurposed drugs has suffered a bit of a blow after a disappointing result for the Off-patent Drugs Bill in Parliament last week.
After passionate arguments – from MPs across all sides of politics – the Bill was effectively blocked from being voted on. It may get a second chance in the chamber, but without Government support, it looks very unlikely to become law.
Here at The Institute of Cancer Research in London, we have been backing a push led by the charity Breast Cancer Now to get the bill passed. Six of our senior clinical researchers signed a letter published in The Telegraph last month and our Chief Executive, Professor Paul Workman, has written a passionately argued blog about it.
The Off-patent Drugs Bill was designed to improve access to drugs whose patents have expired, where evidence shows their value in a repurposed indication, but where there is no financial incentive for pharmaceutical companies to seek a new licence.
A number of these repurposed drugs – including tamoxifen and bisphosphonates in breast cancer – have been shown to improve outcomes for patients, and yet are not being routinely made available.
Although the Bill was not passed, what was plainly apparent from hearing MPs speak at the debate – from all sides of politics – was how successful the campaign had been in galvanising support for the issue and making it a priority among policy makers.
MPs supporting the Bill debated passionately – often with a clarity afforded by personal experience with significant illnesses or as health professionals themselves. It was clear MPs had heard a resounding voice of support from many in their electorates.
An event organised by Breast Cancer Now before the debate, which I and other ICR staff attended, brought together MPs and medical charities, and heard that in the event of the Bill’s defeat, the campaign was too important to fail and would continue.
While ministers did not support the Bill, they were clear that they did support its aims. As the debate’s allotted time in the House counted down, health minister Alistair Burt at least held out some hope by pledging to work with stakeholders to see how the issue could progress.
Whether through legislative or non-legislative means, we hope that promise translates into action to address this vital issue soon.
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