We’ve been campaigning to improve access to Off-patent drugs. These are low-cost, effective drugs that aren’t always getting to the people that could benefit from them.

We’ve been working with MP and Breast Cancer Ambassador Nick Thomas-Symonds, who introduced a Bill to try to tackle the problem. Nick’s Off-patent Drugs Bill aimed to improve access to low-cost treatments for a range of conditions, including breast cancer.

Unfortunately, despite widespread support from the public, MPs, other charities, professional medical bodies and clinicians, the Government chose not to back the Bill and it didn’t progress past its Second Reading. This means it will not become law. Read what our Chief Executive, Delyth Morgan, has to say about the Bill.

However, thanks to action from our campaigners, we are now seeing real progress made in Parliament on improving access to off-patent drugs. During a debate on the Access to Medical Treatments Bill (AMTI), the Minister committed to exploring how to make progress on a number of the issues that were raised, in order to improve access to repurposed off-patent drugs. For more information, you can read our full comment on the debate.

Old drugs – new tricks

New drugs are expensive because when they’re developed, a pharmaceutical company will gain a patent which restricts their use and production for a set period of time. But when this patent expires, the price of these drugs falls significantly.

Research has found that some existing drugs are effective for new purposes, such as the breast cancer drug tamoxifen which, as well as treating breast cancer, can also help prevent breast cancer from developing in the first place. Others, such as zoledronic acid, a type of drug called a bisphosphonate, can help prevent breast cancer spreading to the bone. For this purpose, the drug would cost as little as 5p a day per patient.

But there are barriers preventing these effective, low-cost drugs from being routinely available. This is because each time a drug is shown to be effective for a new purpose, it requires a new licence to be sold and advertised for its new use.

Because the price of the drug will fall once a patent has expired, there isn’t an incentive for a pharmaceutical company to apply for a new licence for a new use and make sure the treatment is made available on the NHS. And without a licence acting as a safety ‘kitemark’, and approval to use the treatment on the NHS, some doctors don’t feel they can give their patients these drugs, despite research showing they’re effective.

This means that drugs that have been proven to benefit people are not getting to everyone that needs them.

Fiona supports our work

Fiona, 26, is from West Yorkshire and her mum, grandmother and great-grandmother have all had breast cancer. She is a passionate supporter of our campaign.

Fiona supports our Unlock Drugs campaign

"I don’t understand the logic of cheap and effective drugs that could prevent this devastating disease not even being offered to everyone who could benefit from them."The Government should be doing more to fix this problem right now. I fully support Breast Cancer Now's work to encourage the Government to act in the public's interest, rather than relying on pharmaceutical companies whose interest is financial."


The Off-patent Drugs Bill was supported by the following charities:

Charities supporting the off-patent drugs bill 2015

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Blog: Unlock Drugs update 

Read our Storify of what happened on the day