Immunotherapy treatment fast tracked to treat lung cancer patients in England

Fluid pathology of lung adenocarcinoma, a type of non small cell cancer.

Fluid pathology of lung adenocarcinoma, a type of non small cell cancer.

A type of immunotherapy drug that can significantly reduce the risk of lung cancer returning is being made available to people with non small cell lung cancer in England.

More than 850 cancer patients are expected to be eligible from the drug atezolizumab (Tecentriq) after it was approved by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).

The drug will be available in the next few weeks after an early-access deal was struck between the drug manufacturer and NHS England.

“It’s great to see this drug approved so quickly, bringing even more optimism to tackling a difficult-to-treat cancer.”

Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician.

Clinical trials show promising results

According to NHS England, clinical trial results found that atezolizumab could reduce the risk of cancer recurrence or death by 34% in patients with early-stage non small cell lung cancer, whose tumours test positive for a protein called PD-L1.

Until now, this group of patients have had limited options due to a lack of approved treatments.

Atezolizumab, which is already approved to treat a number of cancer types, is given as an IV drip, blocks PD-L1 and helps the immune system to fight cancer more effectively.

England is only the second country in Europe to make atezolizumab available for this group of patients, after Switzerland. It’s the first immunotherapy approved for patients whose early-stage non small cell lung cancers express PD-L1 and who have undergone surgery and chemotherapy.

Lung cancer is the most common cause of cancer death in the UK, accounting for around a fifth of all cancer deaths.

This new treatment option offers hope to people with NSCLC, which accounts for more than 87% of lung cancer cases in the UK.

Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, said, “The NHS has a strong track record of securing rapid access to cutting-edge, new treatments for our patients, and this is the latest rapid access agreement that places an innovative treatment in the hands of frontline NHS staff, supporting them to continue to deliver world-class patient care.”

New hope for patients with early-stage lung cancer

As well as making promising new treatments available, NHS England is also piloting Targeted Lung Health Checks for people most at risk so that lung cancers can be diagnosed at an early stage when treatment may be more successful.

The approval of atezolizumab means a drug will be available for people in England with lung cancer that’s been caught early enough for an operation, giving them the best chance of being cured.

Professor Charles Swanton, Cancer Research UK’s chief clinician, said: “Sadly, early-stage lung cancers often come back after surgery, especially larger tumours. The approval of atezolizumab treatment for PD-L1+ non small cell lung cancer is a major step forward as a follow-up treatment after surgery and chemotherapy.

“Atezolizumab will help to dramatically reduce the risk of tumours coming back and increase the chance of curing the disease long term – allowing patients to return to normal life.”

NHS England, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) and drug manufacturer Roche have reached an agreement to give early access to atezolizumab for eligible patients in England before NICE carry out their appraisal. Final NICE guidance is expected in March 2022. NICE decisions are usually adopted in Wales and Northern Ireland, while Scotland has a separate process for reviewing drugs.

This is the third new drug indication that has been made available in England through an early access agreement following a Project Orbis license – an international partnership between medicines regulators to speed up the licensing process for promising cancer treatments.

It follows similar NHS agreements for osimertinib and also sotorasib, which targets the so-called “death star” mutation.

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