Lung-cancer patients will get access to a life-saving treatment

Thousands of lung-cancer patients will receive a life-saving treatment on the NHS after the drug watchdog gave it the green light

  • Combines two forms of chemo with a breakthrough immunotherapy drug
  • Studies show combination doubles survival chances in the first year
  • Pilot scheme will be available to more than 3,000 patients over next 18 months 
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Thousands of people with lung cancer are to get access to a revolutionary triple-attack drug treatment, health officials announced last night.

Trials have shown the treatment – which combines two forms of chemotherapy with a breakthrough immunotherapy drug – doubles survival chances in the first year in which patients take it.

NHS drugs watchdog NICE gave the green light to a pilot of the new combination treatment, making available to more than 3,000 patients over the next 18 months.

If the treatment is shown to be succesful it will then be made routinely available long-term.

The decision makes a two-year course of the treatment available to adults with untreated non-small-cell lung cancer.

In a pilot scheme, 3,000 lung-cancer patients will receive a combination of the immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab (Keytruda, pictured) and two types of chemotherapy – pemetrexed and platinum chemotherapy, over the next 18 months 

They will receive a combination of immunotherapy drug pembrolizumab (Keytruda) and two types of chemotherapy – pemetrexed and platinum chemotherapy.

The treatment harnesses the body’s immune system and launches at the cancer, while also blasting the tumours with chemotherapy.

A US trial of the treatment published in April saw 12-month survival rates doubled to 70 per cent using the triple treatment rather than chemotherapy alone.

The trial, of 616 patients, also showed the triple treatment stopped cancer spreading for nine months – four months longer than using chemotherapy.

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NICE said that further evidence is needed on the benefits of the combination therapy before it can be made available routinely.

But they said there was enough evidence to make it temporarily available on the Cancer Drugs Fund, which means it can be used until at least June 2019 while more data is collected.

The treatment usually costs roughly £90,000 a year – but drugs giant MSD, which makes the drug, has given the NHS a confidential discount.

Meindert Boysen, director of the NICE Centre for Health Technology Evaluation, said: ‘Over the past two decades there have been few improvements for people with this type of lung cancer so we are pleased to support access to this new option via the Cancer Drugs Fund, and keen to see further data on its effectiveness as it becomes available.

‘NICE recommends that this treatment is given for a maximum of two years, because it is thought that patients do not need to continue treatment beyond this point to achieve the benefits.

‘NICE will consider this point when we review the additional evidence.’ Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said: ‘This decision is good news for people affected by this type of lung cancer.

‘This drug combination has shown significant benefits for some patients in clinical trials, helping them to survive their cancer for longer.

‘This also shows the value of the Cancer Drugs Fund, which gives NICE the option to approve promising treatments while more data is collected on their long-term benefits.

‘Lung cancer is the biggest cancer killer in the UK so it’s vital that innovations like this reach patients as quickly as possible.’ 

John Stewart, NHS England’s director of specialised commissioning, said: ‘NHS England has worked closely with MSD to reach a commercial deal to make this innovative drug available to a new group of lung cancer patients.

‘This is another example of how a more flexible approach to price negotiation has clear benefits – not only for patients, but also for industry and taxpayers.’


Keytruda (pembrolizumab) is an IV immunotherapy that works with a cancer patient’s immune system to help them fight the disease.

It does this by blocking PD-L1 on the surface of cancer cells. This takes the brakes off the immune system, setting it free to attack cancer cells.  

Keytruda, developed by Merck, has been approved by the FDA to treat the following cancers:

  • Advanced melanoma
  • Advanced non-small lung
  • Head and neck squamos cell
  • Classical Hodgkin lymphoma
  • Primary mediastinal B-cell lymphoma
  • Bladder and urinary tract 
  • Advanced stomach
  • Advanced cervical 
  • Those with a ‘DNA mismatch repair’, which can include breast 

In the US, Keytruda – injected twice a week – can be used in adults or children with any of the above cancers that cannot be surgically removed or have progressed following treatment. 

In June 2018, NHS England announced the drug will be routinely available on the health service for patients with lung cancers that have spread. It can already be dished out for patients with melanoma or Hodgkin lymphoma.

Some patients have also chosen to have the treatment privately.  

Studies show the drug can shrink different types of tumours and boost a patient’s response to other treatments.  

But Keytruda can also cause the immune system to attack healthy organs and tissue, which can be life threatening. Complications may include colitis, hepatitis or kidney failure. 



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