Five new medicines to be fast-tracked annually to NHS patients

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image captionPromising drugs will be given a fast-track path to approval under new plans

The government has announced a plan to speed up the time it takes for new, life-changing medicines to reach patients.

From April 2018, around five drugs or devices will be selected by a panel of experts for fast-tracking each year.

This could mean they are available up to four years earlier than normal, ministers said.

The pharmaceutical industry and charities welcomed the news, saying it was a step in the right direction.

The former head of drug company GlaxoSmithKline, Sir Andrew Witty, will lead the panel deciding on which products should be selected.

Time will be saved by reducing the time taken for new breakthrough products to get through the NHS's appraisal and approval processes.

Under the new plans, ministers said a flash glucose monitor for people with type 1 diabetes, which means they no longer have to prick their fingers to monitor glucose levels, could have been made available more quickly on the NHS.

It became available on NHS prescription across the UK this month.

Funding boost

As part of the plans, there will also be financial support for companies to help them develop their treatments more quickly.

The government is providing £86m in funding - £35m of which will go towards small and medium-sized firms and their digital products and £39m to encourage take-up of new medical technologies.

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A scheme to support the development of pharmaceutical and diagnostics products will receive £6m and another £6m will be used to support clinicians in using new treatments and technologies in everyday practice.

In return, life sciences firms would be expected to deliver value for money for the taxpayer when pricing their products, the government said.

'Transformative therapies'

Dr Richard Torbett, executive director of The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, said the government's commitment to speeding up access to the most innovative medicines was "very much welcome".

He added: "This should benefit thousands of NHS patients as well as delivering significant long-term savings for the health service if appropriate investment in these transformative therapies is made available."

Nic Bungay, director of care at Muscular Dystrophy UK, said the news could be of "tremendous significance" to people with progressive muscle-wasting conditions, but he also wanted clarification on what a "breakthrough" treatment was and how they would be evaluated by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

"In a year waiting for a treatment, the ability to walk could be lost, or respiratory muscles irreversibly damaged.

"We hope the new scheme will go some way to ending bureaucratic delays and speeding up access to new drugs," he said.

Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said it was promising that repurposed drugs shown to be effective when used in a new way would be eligible for the fast-track pathway.

But she was not sure how the system would cope with assessing modern cancer medicines.

"We remain greatly concerned that new treatments given in combination will struggle to demonstrate cost-effectiveness at any price, and it is disappointing that the opportunity to address this issue does not appear to have been taken," she said.

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