NHS patients being treated for an aggressive blood cancer will now benefit from a powerful drug that can reduce the risk of their disease coming back.
Experts say the drug, called Polivy, could dramatically improve survival rates for the 5,000 Britons who develop the condition each year, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. One third of patients do not survive more than five years after diagnosis.
The treatment has been approved by the NHS drug watchdog, the National Institute For Health and Care Excellence (NICE), after studies showed it vastly outperformed current treatment, with leading blood cancer experts declaring it a ‘game changer’ for some patients.
‘There has been no real breakthrough in the treatment of this type of blood cancer in the last 20 years, but Polivy has shown clear benefits in terms of reducing the risk of relapse,’ says Professor George Follows, consultant haematologist at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust .
“If you respond to this drug, it’s a huge game changer.”
NHS patients treated for an aggressive blood cancer will now benefit from a powerful drug that could reduce the risk of their disease coming back
Researchers found that the average relapse rate in patients receiving Polivy dropped by a quarter in the two years after treatment, according to a study published in The New England Journal Of Medicine.
However, a subgroup of patients with a specific type of the disease, called non-germinal center B-cell lymphoma, was shown to benefit even more, cutting the chance of relapse by two-thirds. The condition develops when the body’s fighting blood cells, called B cells, develop abnormally and bind together to form nodules in the neck, armpit, or groin.
The malfunctioning cells also reduce the body’s ability to fight infection and can throw off the immune system.
This type of blood cancer can affect people of all ages, but is more common around age 70.
Doctors treat the condition with a combination of chemotherapy drugs, a steroid and another cancer-destroying drug, but many patients still see their cancer come back within a few years and a third eventually lose their lives.
Polivy, also called polatuzumab vedotin, is an antibody-drug conjugate ? drugs that deliver chemotherapy drugs into each cancer cell to destroy it from the inside out.
It is given in addition to the traditional drug regimen once every three weeks through a 90-minute infusion in the hospital.
Polivy usually costs around ?72,000 per patient for a four-month course. However, NICE has negotiated a discount with the manufacturer – Swiss-based pharmaceutical company Roche – meaning the infusion qualifies as a cost-effective option for the ailing NHS.
Phyll McCarthy, 76, was one of the first in the UK to benefit from Polivy. The mother of two, from Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, noticed a small swelling near her armpit in September 2021. Her GP referred her to the hospital for a scan.
“I wasn’t really worried,” says Phyll. “It didn’t hurt and the swelling went down a bit after I had the scan.”
But a biopsy a few weeks later revealed she had an aggressive diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and needed urgent treatment.
She had private health insurance, which meant she could seek treatment almost immediately.
Phyll saw Prof Follows at Genesis Care private clinic in Oxford, who persuaded her insurer to cover the cost of the new treatment.
“I had my first treatment in early 2022 and after just two of the planned eight sessions, tests showed I was already in remission,” says Phyll. “That was great news.”
But there were some lows.
?Because of the chemotherapy, my beautiful, long, dark hair fell out and it took a while for it to grow back,? she says.
?But my regular scans still show no sign of cancer. It’s too early to say I’m cured ? I have to be cancer free for five years before we can say that.
‘It’s great news that many more people can now benefit from this treatment on the NHS.’
New drug approved on NHS reduces risk of relapse of rare blood cancer by a quarter