At a glance: Bowel cancer blow for drugs firms and patients

Is this NICE's bowel cancer recommendation? Yes, NICE last week ruled that NHS patients with advanced bowel cancer should not receive either Roche's Avastin (bevacizumab) or Merck Pharmaceuticals' Erbitux (cetuximab) because they are not cost-effective.

Presumably this is also a blow for various PR agencies?
Indeed so. Ketchum looks after UK PR for Avastin, while Resolute Communications has the global account. Huntsworth Health Avenue has the Erbitux account in the UK and Chandler Chicco Agency has been handling international work.

What have there been the arguments for and against?
In Avastin's case, that it prolongs sufferers' life from 15 to 20 months when combined with chemotherapy treatment. But it costs £18,000 for a ten-month course. Erbitux slows the progress of the disease in half of patients, and costs £11,200 for 16 weeks, but NICE said existing data
did not allow a proper assessment of its effectiveness.

So how was PR handled around the NICE announcement?
Pharma company news releases were distributed to the media, alerting them to the decision and the implications for bowel cancer patients in the UK. In oncology, the disease is second only to lung cancer as a killer, with 16,000 deaths a year.

Has there been any other PR activity?
Patient groups, of course, have been active. Bowel Cancer UK issued a statement to national and regional media and put up sufferers and carers as case studies - to show the drugs' efficacy in those who were receiving it, and highlighting the problems of people who weren't. Beating Bowel Cancer called the decision a ‘scandal' and emphasised that the UK is now the only EU state not to offer the drugs to patients in the disease's advanced stages. Senior oncologists have called it a ‘backward step' for bowel cancer treatment.

Strong stuff. What's the next move? An appeal?
Patient groups and Merck will mount their own appeals. Roche says it won't. The firm is pushing for new indicat­ions for Avastin, for lung and breast cancer. It will see how these go before looking again at the best way to proceed in relation to bowel cancer. NICE's final guidance is expected to come into operation in November.

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