June 26, 2008 3:00 am
Leading pharmaceutical groups are cutting back on clinical research in the UK, claiming insufficient commitment by the government and the National Health Service to support new drug development.
Pfizer of the US, Roche of Switzerland and Merck-Serono of Germany are among the companies which have told the Financial Times they have, or will, reduce the number of British patients enrolled in trials to test experimental medicines for life-threatening diseases such as cancer.
The drug companies are increasingly frustrated by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, the government's medicines advisory body, which yesterday handed them fresh setbacks by advising against NHS use of Pfizer's Avastin and Merck-Serono's Erbitux.
The result, the companies claim, is that few patients in Britain are receiving "gold standard" treatment so there is too small a group against which to compare their experimental drugs.
Chris Brinsmead, head of the UK arm of AstraZeneca and newly appointed president of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the trade body, said a sample of just four companies had revealed that more than 20 trials had failed to get off the ground since the start of last year because they could not recruit patients.
"Two or three years ago, this would have just been hypothetical," he said, stressing that the UK's relative share of global clinical trials was already in decline although absolute numbers were stable. "It would be a great shame if the trend continued."
The warnings are a fresh embarrassment for the government, which has stressed its commitment to pharmaceutical research in the UK while imposing a fresh 5 per cost cut after unilaterally scrapping the existing price contract with industry only halfway through its five-year term.
Denise Richard, head of the UK oncology business division at Merck-Serono, the German drug company, said a large cancer trial her company had supported three years ago with free medicine and a grant of several million pounds was "the last time we will invest such a massive amount until we see a better return".
She said that if her company had previously allowed her to include about 20 British centres with cancer patients as part of international clinical trials, it was now willing to permit only four or five "to provide a bit of data from the UK".
Pfizer has already recently cancelled UK participation in four clinical trials, including one for cancer, because it could not recruit sufficient patients who were taking the existing international "gold standard" approved drugs against which to compare with Avastin, its experimental treatment.
Harpal Kumar, head of Cancer Research UK, said: "In the long-term there is a serious risk that if we get to the point where none of the new drugs are being used in the UK, the trials won't be done here."
Nice argues it approves most medicines and those that it has rejected have offered very limited value.
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