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Health care plan may exclude RA drug

Friday October 9th 2009

A powerful new "smart" drug for rheumatoid arthritis has been launched in the UK amid doubts about whether it will be made available to NHS patients.

Tocilizumab is the first medicine to target a key signalling molecule that underpins many inflammatory processes.

Trials have shown it can transform the lives of patients who cannot tolerate other therapies or no longer respond to them.

But at present it looks as if the drug will be too expensive for the NHS. The cost of treating just one patient is £9,300 per year.

Around 646,000 people in the UK suffer from rheumatoid arthritis (RA), a crippling condition in which the body's own immune system attacks the joints. Many are severely disabled.

The direct and indirect costs of the disease are estimated at £3.8 billion to £4.75 billion a year in the UK alone.

On October 1 the National Institute for health and Clinical Excellence (Nice), which judges the cost effectiveness of new medicines in England, issued preliminary guidance giving a thumbs down to tocilizumab. Without Nice approval, Primary Care Trusts are highly unlikely to pay for the drug.

The National Rheumatoid Arthritis Society (NRAS), a charity supporting sufferers of the disease, described the decision as "extremely bad news".

It remains to be seen whether the recommendation will be reversed or altered by the time Nice produces its final guidance early next year.

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