Thousands of women at increased risk of breast cancer are set to benefit from a risk-reducing drug to be offered by Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) after it was licensed for use to help prevent the disease, the state-funded health service announced on Tuesday.
Anastrozole, which has been used for many years as a breast cancer treatment, has today been licensed by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) as a preventive option – which it is hoped could help prevent thousands of breast cancer cases in England.
The drug, which is off-patent, has been shown in trials to reduce the incidence of the disease in post-menopausal women at increased risk of the disease by almost 50 per cent.
“Breast cancer is the most common cancer in the UK, so I’m delighted that another effective drug to help to prevent this cruel disease has now been approved,” said UK Health Minister Will Quince.
“We’ve already seen the positive effect Anastrozole can have in treating the disease when it has been detected in postmenopausal women and now we can use it to stop it developing at all in some women. This is a great example of NHS England’s innovative Medicines Repurposing Programme supporting the development of new ways for NHS patients to benefit from existing treatments,” he said.
Around 289,000 women at moderate or high risk of breast cancer could be eligible for the drug, and while not all will choose to take it, it is estimated that if 25 per cent do, around 2,000 cases of breast cancer could potentially be prevented in England, while saving the NHS around GBP 15 million in treatment costs.
“This is the first drug to be repurposed though a world-leading new programme to help us realise the full potential of existing medicines in new uses to save and improve more lives on the NHS. Thanks to this initiative, we hope that greater access to anastrozole could enable more women to take risk-reducing steps if they’d like to, helping them live without fear of breast cancer,” said NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard.
The treatment is taken as a 1mg tablet, once a day for five years. Anastrozole is an aromatase inhibitor, which works by cutting down the amount of the hormone oestrogen that a patient’s body makes by blocking an enzyme called “aromatase”.
The most common side effects of the medicine are hot flushes, feeling weak, pain/stiffness in the joints, arthritis, skin rash, nausea, headache, osteoporosis, and depression. Anyone who suspects they are having a side effect from this medicine is encouraged to talk to their doctor, pharmacist or nurse and report it directly to the MHRA’s Yellow Card scheme.
“The extension of anastrozole’s licence to cover it being used as a risk-reducing treatment is a major step forward that will enable more eligible women with a significant family history of breast cancer, to reduce their chance of developing the disease,” said Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at the Breast Cancer Now charity.
The UK’s Medicines Repurposing Programme was set up in 2021 and is hosted by NHS England and supported by the government to build on the innovation in medicines repurposing seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, when tocilizumab, an arthritis drug, and dexamethasone, a widely available steroid, was repurposed as treatments for coronavirus.
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