On Sunday, it was exactly one year since the Government blocked my Private Members Bill, a bill which would have ensured that patients benefited from cheap, effective “repurposed” drugs on the NHS. The story of that day, and of what has happened since, shows the best and the worst of our political system.
My Off-patent Drugs Bill was designed to ensure that patients can get hold of old – and therefore cheap – drugs which are shown to be effective in new ways, even if there is no financial incentive for a pharmaceutical company to take them through the licencing process. It had the backing of MPs from all sides of House of Commons, numerous medical research charities and the vast majority of the medical establishment.
But all of that meant nothing when the minister responsible stood up and informed the House that he intended to “talk out” the bill. I will never forget how frustrated and helpless I felt that day, as I watched the minutes tick by and had to listen to MPs on the opposite benches filibuster and ensure that my Private Members Bill would not continue its passage into law. As a new MP it was a harsh awakening to the realities of our parliamentary system.
The government’s actions that day caused a great deal of anger both within and outside Parliament, and even today many clinicians and academics still tell me how frustrated and confused they were by the decision. They know better than anyone the potential of repurposed drugs, not only for patients but also for stretched NHS funds.
However, I did not intend to give up. In the minister’s speech that day, there were words of hope, with the minister saying: “The reason for resisting what is proposed is that the Government believe that there is a different pathway… However, I am also persuaded by what I’ve heard today and feel sufficiently uncomfortable about the current situation to know that this is not the end of the matter…my advice to colleagues in the Department of Health will certainly reflect the mood of the House and what has been said.”
Now, one year on, it seems an apt moment to reflect on whether the minister was true to his word, what progress has been made, and what still needs to be done. Because he was right, 6 November 2015 was not the end of the matter.
Less than three months later, on 29 January 2016, with the support of Conservative MP and breast cancer survivor Jo Churchill MP and SNP health spokesperson and former breast cancer surgeon Philippa Whitford MP, we secured amendments to the Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Bill and obtained a series of vital commitments from then Life Sciences Minister George Freeman.
Crucially, he agreed that his department would work to develop a way for patients to access repurposed drugs. This included considering ways to licence certain drugs. He also said that he would work with the British National Formulary (BNF) – sometimes called the prescribers’ bible – to ensure repurposed drugs with a clear evidence base were included for new, off-label use.
On this final commitment, we have already seen great progress. The BNF has undertaken a huge piece of work to update their entries on repurposed drugs. It has also reviewed the evidence on 200 hundred different repurposed drugs. The team there hope to complete the work by the end of the year and then look carefully at the mechanism for keeping records updated.
There have also been promising developments on the other commitments. Since last November, a number of roundtable meetings involving the Department of Health, NICE, the MHRA, NHS England, clinicians, representatives from the pharmaceutical industry and a large number of medical research charities have been held to explore the issues and map a way forward.
This collaborative approach is to be welcomed. I am hopeful that their report, due to be published in February, will not only bring clarity on the issue, but offer innovative, workable solutions.
This important progress shows that although our system is not perfect, determined backbench MPs can make a difference. But there’s still more to do. Which is why the Off-patent Drugs all-party parliamentary group met on Monday.
The progress must continue. As research from Breast Cancer Now published last month showed, cheap, repurposed breast cancer drugs are still not getting through to patients. This case highlights once again how important it is that we address the blockages in the system which are stopping effective drugs being routinely prescribed. The longer we stall, the more patients suffer as a result.