Right now, there are effective, low-cost breast cancer drugs that aren’t routinely available to everyone who could benefit from them. 
Wednesday 8 July 2015      Policy and campaigns blog
Will your MP help unlock life-saving drugs?

Breast Cancer Now’s Policy team explains why this is happening, and why we must take action to unlock these drugs.

What’s the problem?

Through research we’ve discovered that some existing low-cost drugs can be effective for purposes other than their original intended use.

Take tamoxifen for example. This is a drug that is primarily used to treat breast cancer. However, it’s since been shown to be effective in preventing the disease from occurring in the first place, for people at increased risk due to their family history.

New licence

For tamoxifen to be sold and advertised as a drug to help prevent breast cancer, it will need a new licence for this new purpose.

So how do we go about getting a new licence for tamoxifen? When new drugs are developed, a pharmaceutical company will gain a patent which means that only that company can provide the drug for a set period of time. This is one of the reasons why new drugs are often expensive. The company will then seek to get it licensed and approved for routine use on the NHS.

Once the patent for a drug has expired, other companies can provide it, and the price of the drug falls significantly. Without a patent in place to protect the investment of the pharmaceutical company which developed the treatment, there’s no incentive for them to sponsor it through the process which they would normally use to license it and approve it for use on the NHS.

Without a licence to act as a ‘kitemark’ of safety for a treatment, the drug is far less likely to be prescribed to patients, which means effective and cheap treatments aren’t always getting to the people who need them.

What’s the solution?

At Breast Cancer Now, we believe the government should play a bigger role in ensuring these drugs are available, by co-ordinating licence applications for repurposed off-patent drugs and ensuring their adoption on the NHS. By making this change, we can make sure that patients can routinely access cheap and effective and, in some cases, life-saving treatments.

We’re working with newly-elected MP and Breast Cancer Ambassador Nick Thomas-Symonds, who is introducing a Bill to try to tackle the problem. If successful, Nick’s Off-patent Drugs Bill will improve access to low-cost treatments for a range of conditions, including breast cancer.

The Bill would put into UK law a duty on the government to step in where there is no incentive for a pharmaceutical company to act, and act in the public interest to seek to licence and approve off-patent treatments for use on the NHS.

How you can help

To ensure Nick’s Bill is successful, we’ll need at least 100 MPs to go along and vote for it on Friday 6 November. And we need you to contact your MP and encourage them to back the Bill.

The vote is on a Friday, when most MPs return to their local constituencies, which will make it more difficult to convince them to be in Parliament to support the Bill. We need your help to ensure they know that their constituents think that this Bill is important and that they want them to attend the vote. We can’t do this without your support. Your email really could make all the difference.

Wasn’t there a Bill like this last year?

Yes, but despite all our hard work, we fell just short of seeing it become law. Sadly, not enough MPs turned up to vote in favour of the Bill on the day. That’s why it’s so important for you to take action. We just missed out last time – let’s not miss out again.

With your help, this time we can make sure we successfully unlock these drugs.

Email your MP now

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About the author


Paul Head is Senior Campaigns Officer at Breast Cancer Now.

He supports our high-level campaigners and leads our campaigning work in Wales and Northern Ireland.