Drug rationing chiefs gave the green light for the daily pill – niraparib – to be prescribed to women with incurable ovarian cancer.
The treatment freezes tumours for months at a time, halting relapse and giving women a crucial break from relentless rounds of grueling chemotherapy.
A drug which halts the spread of ovarian cancer will now be available to NHS patients
Giving ovarian cancer pause
Ovarian cancer is one of the most common and deadly cancers in women, affecting about 7,400 people in the UK every year, killing 4,100.
Survival rates are low because symptoms – such as bloating and tummy pain – can be attributed to other illnesses, meaning three-quarters of women are diagnosed once it has spread.
An estimated 85 per cent of patients experience recurrence after their first treatment, meaning they often face repeated bouts of chemotherapy to keep the disease under control.
The new drug gives patients valuable months of normality before the disease returns and the next chemotherapy round begins.
It is not yet known whether it will extend the lives of patients but it is thought it will benefit around 850 patients a year.
Charities welcomed the decision, branding it a ‘game changer’ for women with the disease.
Rebecca Rennison, from, Target Ovarian Cancer, said: ‘Today’s announcement is a game changer in ovarian cancer.
‘While we have seen some new treatments in recent years, these have been for highly restricted groups.
‘We know that with the right investment in new treatments, more women can and will survive this disease. Today is a critical first step in making that a reality.’
Drug rationing chiefs green lit the pill niraparib to be prescribed to women with ovarian cancer
How it works
Niraparib is one of a group of new cancer drugs called PARP inhibitors, developed by researchers in Sheffield, Cambridge and London over the last 20 years.
These exploit a weakness in cancer cells’ defence, zeroing in on their ‘Achilles heel’ to kill a tumour without harming healthy cells.
Scientists had previously thought cancers with the BRCA gene mutation were the only ones with the weakness.
But research has found it exists in all tumours, although the weakness has been found to be bigger in BRCA mutated cancers.
Trials found women with an inherited BRCA gene mutation saw the time to relapse increase from 5.5 months to 21 months compared with chemotherapy alone.
Niraparib was also shown to help women without a BRCA mutation, doubling the length of time before recurrence from 3.9 months to 9.3 months.
Other studies have shown PARP inhibitors could also play a role in defeating breast and prostate cancer.
Jonathan Ledermann, Professor of Medical Oncology at the University College London Cancer Institute who was involved in the trial, said it would give women with the disease a better quality of life.
‘Niraparib offers the opportunity to delay this cancer from returning or progressing for months, and possibly years in some cases,’ he said. ‘It is a significant step forward.’
UK rates are among the highest in Europe but the country has one of the lowest survival rates.
It will be sold under the brand name Zejula and costs about £80 a pill – £58,661 a year for the 200mg daily dose or £86,786 for the 300mg dose but is available to the NHS at an undisclosed discount.
Meindert Boysen, director of the centre for health technology evaluation at Nice, said: ‘The outcome for women with ovarian cancer is generally poor, with less than 35 percent surviving for five years after diagnosis.
‘We are pleased to see the inclusion of niraparib in the Cancer Drugs Fund as it will give women early access to this treatment while uncertainties in the clinical evidence can be addressed through the collection of additional data.’
Why ovarian cancer is called a ‘silent killer’
About 80 percent of ovarian cancer cases are diagnosed in the advanced stages of the disease.
At the time of diagnosis, 60 percent of ovarian cancers will have already spread to other parts of the body, bringing the five-year survival rate down to 30 percent from 90 percent in the earliest stage.
It’s diagnosed so late because its location in the pelvis, according to Dr Ronny Drapkin, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who’s been studying the disease for more than two decades.
‘The pelvis is like a bowl, so a tumor there can grow quite large before it actually becomes noticeable,’ Dr Drapkin told Daily Mail Online.
The first symptoms to arise with ovarian cancer are gastrointestinal because tumors can start to press upward.
When a patient complains of gastrointestinal discomfort, doctors are more likely to focus on diet change and other causes than suggest an ovarian cancer screening.
Dr Drapkin said it’s usually not until after a patient endures persistent gastrointestinal symptoms that they will receive a screening that reveals the cancer.
‘Ovarian cancer is often said to be a silent killer because it doesn’t have early symptoms, when in fact it does have symptoms, they’re just very general and could be caused by other things,’ he said.
‘One of the things I tell women is that nobody knows your body as well as you do. If you feel something isn’t right, something’s probably not right.’