Cheaper blindness drug may save NHS 85million each yearCurrent drug costs 750 per treatment, but doctors are increasingly using a 60 alternativeDrugs firm that makes the 750 option claims the cheaper alternative puts patients at riskFour NHS trusts are being taken to court by the drug's manufacturer over the issue
23:04 GMT, 6 May 2012
The NHS could save 85million each year by using a cheaper drug to treat a common form of blindness in the elderly, researchers claim.
They have found that Avastin, a drug used to treat cancer, is just as effective against age-related macular degeneration as Lucentis, which is 12 times more expensive.
Effective: New cost effective use of Avastin has been found, but is far cheaper
Around 23,000 patients a year develop the more serious ‘wet’ form of AMD, and nearly three quarters go on to suffer severe sight problems.
At present they are normally prescribed Lucentis injections, which cost 750 and are given every six weeks.
But a number of doctors have started using Avastin, which costs 60 a time and is administered as frequently.
As a result a team of researchers from universities including Oxford, Belfast, Southampton and Bristol carried out a trial on 610 patients to investigate whether it really was as effective.
The study’s initial results showed that both drugs produced almost equal benefit.
Finding: The 60 treatment could replace the 750 treatment to tackle AMD which robs sufferers of their central vision
But the researchers calculated that switching patients to the cheaper Avastin could save the NHS 84.5million a year, based on 17,295 eyes being treated.
AMD is caused by the deterioration and death of the cells in the macula, the part of the retina used to see straight ahead, and so robs sufferers of their central vision.
The more common ‘dry’ form affects the eyes gradually. But one in seven of these will develop the more serious ‘wet’ form and lose their central vision almost immediately.
Avastin, made by Roche, is not currently licensed to treat wet AMD but last year several NHS trusts began using it, as long as it had been recommended by specialist doctors.
Novartis is the drugs giant behind Lucentis
Last month it emerged that Novartis, the drugs giant behind Lucentis, was taking these four trusts to court, claiming they were putting patients at risk.
Experts accused the firm of trying to maximise its profits by blocking the cheaper drug.
Professor Usha Chakravarthy of Queen’s University Belfast, who led the latest research, said: ‘The results at the end of the first year show that Lucentis and Avastin have similar effectiveness.’
She said both groups of patients were able to read one or more lines of letters lower down – which are smaller and harder to see – on a standard sight test.
Novartis argues that Avastin is not as safe as Lucentis and claims that patients are at higher risk of stomach and gut disorders.
But overall, researchers say both drugs are extremely safe.
The study noted, however, that patients on Lucentis were at a slightly higher risk of heart attack and stroke, while those on Avastin were marginally more likely to need hospital treatment for other problems.
A spokesman for the Macular Disease Society said: ‘The trials cannot provide definitive safety information and the overall question of the safety of Avastin is, unfortunately, not answered to everyone’s satisfaction by these trials.
‘The use of Avastin will remain a matter of judgment for clinicians, with some satisfied with the evidence and others not.’