First, I want to make it clear that this debate is not about fighting for a very new and expensive drug. Campaigns about drugs are often brought to the attention of Parliament because a patient is fighting to be allowed to have a new and expensive treatment on the NHS. Some of these new drugs are not just expensive because they are new; because of the complex processes required to make them, they will, in fact, often continue to be expensive to produce. Such situations raise dilemmas for decision makers as to how access to such drugs can be funded.
This debate is about a very different problem: making an existing drug that is modestly priced available for the treatment of a wider range of conditions. Clinical trials are needed to get full approval for the drug under discussion, but I ask the Minister to consider whether there is any possible way in which it could be made more widely available.
Sometimes patients are faced with unacceptable options for treatment and find themselves researching possible new treatments. That is usually a road that leads to disappointment, but occasionally something useful is stumbled upon, such as low dose naltrexone, or LDN. The problem is that it is what is called an “orphan drug”, which means its patent has expired, so if someone does research on it, a generic manufacturer can subsequently steal the business.
I understand that naltrexone is proved safe in its normal mode of use, and now has a clinical history of 11 years of use in the UK with no problems reported and only minor side effects. LDN is also very low cost, and can be used to treat many conditions that are both chronic and often very expensive to treat with more conventional remedies. Sometimes those more conventional remedies have severe side effects, which then have to be treated with more expensive drugs.
The purpose of this debate is to ask how a drug such as LDN could be made available to patients who ask for it. The most desirable route would be via clinical trials leading to marketing authorisation and then official acceptance from the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence and the NHS. A much cheaper and more immediately practical route is to recognise that LDN is a safe choice for patients without many of the risks of drugs currently in use. Doctors could therefore be given official advice not to deny it to patients who want it or wish to acquire it from pharmacists who make it as a “special” at a fair price. There could also be a mechanism for protecting doctors and allowing patients choice. At present, doctors are in a difficult position. If they prescribe anything that is not on an official list, they leave themselves open to criticism, as well as to being sued and possibly losing their right to practise.
The third route is to get it listed as an over-the-counter drug, such as aspirin or paracetamol. I understand that it is considered safer than paracetamol which is sold over the counter, so this might be a reasonable option that would make prescription very easy.
I congratulate Nia Griffith on securing this debate. I am sure that, like me, she has a number of constituents who are benefiting from this drug—I refer particularly to members of the Purbeck and Wareham multiple sclerosis group. It is so frustrating that they cannot get hold of something, through the NHS or in some form that is easily accessible, given that it is definitely making a difference to their lives. I am sure that she would agree that there is a fear that perhaps they will not be able to get it one day. What do they do then?
The hon. Lady is quite right. These people fear that if they change from one GP to another, or if people are less sympathetic towards this drug—obviously this is something that people have to be convinced about—they may well not be able to get hold of it. Unless there is some form of authorisation and some form of making it an official drug that is more widely available, they do run the risk that she describes.
The problem is that many patients feel let down because what they see as perfectly good therapies, which are cheap but out of patent, are being withheld when patients want them. When doctors cannot refute a patient’s choice, they can still deny it to them, because clearly the issue of their professional conduct is involved. If the NHS recommends another treatment, quite possibly one that costs thousands and has drug company support, it is often difficult to get the research done to prove the validity of a drug such as LDN.
Some 5,000 people in the UK with multiple sclerosis use LDN, and a few thousand more use it for other conditions, such as Crohn’s disease, cancers, fibromyalgia, autism and so on. Their GPs usually prefer not to sign NHS prescriptions for LDN—indeed, they may refuse to do so—but there are instances of GPs then charging patients for private prescriptions, explaining that they are worried that NHS prescribing guidelines would prohibit them from prescribing LDN and so they would end up in serious trouble if they did so. One GP in Glasgow who prescribes a lot of LDN was reported to the General Medical Council for doing so recently. My constituent Andrew Barnett has told me that his GP has said that his lawyers advised against it, so he writes my constituent a private prescription and charges him £8.50 a quarter for doing so. My constituent then also has to pay for the LDN itself, at a cost of £17.50 a month.
Some 100,000 people in the UK have MS, only 12% of whom use drugs offered by the NHS. Some of the drugs available are risky and very expensive, and there are questions about how effective they are. Yet some 5% of MS sufferers choose to use LDN, because they feel that it helps them and does not have the risks of some other treatments. LDN has proved to be safe in trials at very high doses, but it is unpromoted and hard to get. Because there are now people making this choice, there must be a way to get this treatment legitimised on the NHS for patients who ask for it. However, we are told that without substantial trials that is not possible. It is very difficult to find a way to fund any such trials because the drug itself is already licensed and therefore drug companies would not be able to recoup the cost of funding the research by marketing the drug; there would be no money in it for them.
We live in an age where information, including real scientific papers and trials reports, is easily available. Patients who are really determined to make the most of their lives, despite terrible illnesses, and who have the wherewithal to look into the research do seek out information and solutions. We have been using LDN in the UK for some 11 years. Naltrexone has been trialled at high doses to treat heroin addiction and is known to be safe, so the only real thing missing is the marketing authorisation from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency—MHRA—for a formulation of low-dose naltrexone, perhaps in liquid or capsule form. A trial would add proof—or not—of its efficacy.
The cost of a trial is probably considerably lower than the cost of a high-tech drug, because the drug itself is so cheap. Estimates suggest that a single trial can be done with some £7 million, but that is just an estimate based on £1,000 per patient a year for the monitoring specialists, plus up to £3,000 a year per patient for LDN. There would be the costs of recruiting 500 to 800 patients and then something to cover the analysis of the results.
There are no systems available, however, for patients to translate their choice of therapy into a legitimate request, even when they vote with their feet in large numbers. Doctors do not see any danger in the choice except that they worry they might be denying people a more effective option, but, as patients have pointed out, if they need what is perceived to be a more effective option, they can take it alongside LDN anyhow.
My constituent Andrew Barnett, who is highly intelligent, scientifically minded and analytical, has made the assessment that LDN seems to have stopped his disease developing further. The constituents of Annette Brooke have confirmed the same belief. My constituent regrets very much that he did not start using it earlier. If he had done so, perhaps some five years ago, he feels that he would still be working and contributing actively to the economy.
Doctors do have to say no to treatment choices for the sake of the patient, but when they have no reasons to deny an option, as is the case with LDN, that should not happen. We should try to ensure that we enable them to prescribe LDN. Doctors all tell us that without the trial, they do not have the confidence to prescribe, so patients face the potential loss of supply of prescriptions if they change doctor, quite apart from the cost of private prescriptions, which is hurtful for many patients who have been reduced to living on income support by sickness or disability.
So, the substance of the debate is about patient access to therapies that cannot get the trials they need for reasons such as not being patentable or the lack of profit in the therapy, especially when the therapy is known to be safe. LDN seems to be the most prominent, in that there are no sensible arguments to deny it to patients who want it and those patients report great satisfaction with it in most cases. It is frankly a disgrace that such options are denied to informed patients who ask for them on the NHS. It would save the NHS so much money to allow this. LDN can be supplied for as little as £17.50 a month, compared with some other expensive drugs, such as £60,000 for Copaxone, £15,000 for Avonex or £90,000 a year for another drug that was recently in the news.
The question is how we can get the trials and get people interested. Academics often rely on backing from pharmaceutical companies to put together their plans and proposals for a research project. It is very difficult to find academics who want to spend that time and energy if they do not know that they will get the backing. They could put in a lot of work without getting any funding for any proposal.
We must face up to the problem of what systems we have in place to provide licensing for drugs such as LDN. One doctor I have talked to, Dr Lawrence from Swansea, tells me that LDN not only seems to have acceptable uses for people with multiple sclerosis but, he feels, has enormous potential for the treatment of cancer. That would be a very worthwhile investigation, considering that we spend so much on looking for answers and on treating the various cancer diseases. Sanctioning the use of LDN would also allow doctors to collect clinical data that could be used to monitor and help prove the effectiveness of the drug.
Naltrexone is already an approved drug at higher doses and research and clinical trials have already shown its effectiveness at low doses to treat auto-immune diseases. Patients have difficulty in getting their GPs to write prescriptions and have to get the treatment privately, but it would be preferable for patients to work with their GPs so that their GPs can monitor them. GPs have had to seek legal advice to find out whether they should be prescribing it and lawyers have advised against it, putting them in a very difficult position.
Among the supporters of LDN are GPs, neurologists and oncologists who have seen patients’ diseases not get worse and there are cases where such specialists have supported its use for the patient and stated that in a written letter to the GP. Even then, the GP has felt unable to prescribe the drug for fear of being unprofessional.
Campaigners have worked with local health boards and PCTs to try to determine what knowledge there is about LDN and whether GP practices have heard of it or are using it. The responses came back negative. What can we do so that LDN is offered in addition to other drugs currently prescribed on the NHS? This is about patient choice. It would be nice to be able to make LDN available to patients on a much wider basis, but it is important that patients are monitored by their GPs when using any medication, so we do not simply want a free-for-all. We want the proper medical trials, proof and backing that is needed to show whether it is an effective drug, which will enable it to be made more widely available, but there is a real difficulty, despite the fact that the orphan drug could be a cheap option for the NHS, in funding the sort of research needed to trial it. I return to my initial request and ask the Minister whether there is any way he can make LDN more widely and easily available to patients.
I begin by congratulating Nia Griffith on securing the debate and hope that by the end of my comments, particularly the last section, she will feel that there is a mechanism and a way forward that she will find helpful. Like her, I am well aware of the interest in the subject from those who feel that LDN is a suitable treatment for a number of conditions, including multiple sclerosis, HIV and various cancers. I am grateful to her for the opportunity to clarify the Government’s position.
I will begin by talking about the process for licensing drugs in general. An unlicensed medicine is not necessarily illegal in the way an unlicensed driver is; it just means that the regulator has not yet been given the evidence it requires to support a routine place in the market. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is responsible for the regulation of medicines used in the UK, which includes authorising applications for clinical trials and granting licences for medicines. MHRA gives licences for medicines only after evidence has been submitted to demonstrate the quality, safety and efficacy of the product for the conditions it is intended to treat. That system, whereby licences follow evidence, protects patients and means that there is always a robust, systematic and independent assessment of the safety and suitability of licensed medicines.
In the UK, naltrexone is currently only fully licensed in 50 mg tablet form. That dosage is used to help patients remain free from dependence on heroin, methadone and similar opiates and to help those who are dependent on alcohol, but the drug is not currently licensed at any dose for the treatment of the other conditions that the hon. Lady rightly mentioned, because the evidence necessary for a licence does not currently exist. However, naltrexone is being prescribed by some doctors in doses of up to 7 mg on an individual patient basis. This is referred to as low-dose naltrexone.
The reason MHRA has not looked into licensing LDN is that it has not received any application or evidence to support it, which means LDN is currently unlicensed. That does not mean that it is necessarily unsafe; it is just that a licence for its use in this country does not exist. The current position is that when a patient needs a medicine an appropriate licensed product should be used. If it is not available, doctors can prescribe a different licensed medicine if they think that it will do the job. If neither of those options is available, an unlicensed medicine may be considered. LDN currently falls into that last bracket. As it involves a significantly lower dose than the licensed form of naltrexone, and as it is untested, it is regarded as an unlicensed medicine.
Legislation supports clinicians when they want to prescribe an unlicensed medicine that they think is necessary to meet a patient’s particular needs. The MHRA checks that the medicine is being manufactured to the right standards, in a safe environment and with suitable materials. Any unlicensed product manufactured in the UK must be manufactured to the specification of the doctor, nurse, dentist or whichever professional prescribed it in the first place. The important point is that the use of an unlicensed medicine is the direct personal responsibility of the professional who prescribed it. They are aware that it is unlicensed, and they prescribe it with that knowledge. The position is reflected in professional guidance, including that of the General Medical Council.
Given that a licensed LDN product is not available in the UK, it can be supplied only as an unlicensed product either manufactured in the UK or imported from somewhere else. Most of the LDN used in this country is manufactured in the UK, but anyone who wants to import it must be authorised by the MHRA. In the UK, manufacturers produce a number of formulations, including LDN capsules, at strengths ranging from 1 mg to 6.5 mg, and these are produced under a “specials” licence.
The importation of any medicinal product not licensed in the UK must be in compliance with the Medicines for Human Use (Manufacturing, Wholesale Dealing and Miscellaneous Amendments) Regulations 2005, which provides for the import of products when a special clinical need exists for individual patients and when the regulatory authority has not objected to the import. Objections may be made on grounds of known safety or quality issues, or if an equivalent UK licensed product is available. In the case of LDN, there is no ban on the import of products of acceptable quality and safety, and I hope that those comments go some way to reassuring the hon. Lady on her point about the fears of some GPs who had been or were not prescribing the drug.
When medicines are unlicensed, such as LDN, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence does not generally assess them, so it has not issued any guidance on the use of LDN in the NHS. When NICE guidance on a particular drug for a particular condition does not exist, it is for local primary care trusts in England to make funding decisions based on their own assessment of the available evidence. On behalf of their patients, doctors can, through an individual funding request, request treatments that are not usually funded, if they feel that there are exceptional clinical circumstances.
In this situation, a special panel that includes clinicians would carefully consider individual cases. They would use the latest available evidence and make a decision on the basis of a patient’s individual circumstances, but we recognise that there is demand from the NHS and from patients for better access to information about drug treatments, particularly when no licensed product is available, so we are keen to explore whether more can be done to support clinicians, NHS commissioners and patients in their own decision-making by giving them easier access to the best available information. That is why the Department of Health asked NICE to provide a service to support the NHS in deciding whether an unlicensed drug can be used to address an unmet need. Under our plans, NICE will commission expert assessments of the evidence that supports—or does not support—the use of unlicensed medicines, including in rarer conditions. That will help clinicians make decisions about effective treatments and address one of the access problems that patients face. As I said earlier, it is important that we preserve the integrity of the medicines licensing scheme, which is so vital to protecting patients. Any information provided will be designed to inform doctors’ decision making and patients’ choices, not to provide a simple yes or no recommendation.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is responsible for the enforcement of the advertising regulations—another important area with regard to this subject. There are also self-regulatory controls operated by the industry body—the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority—and general controls on advertising operated by the Advertising Standards Authority. Regulations state that
“no person shall issue an advertisement relating to a relevant medicinal product which is a medicinal product in respect of which no marketing authorisation or traditional herbal registration is in force”.
The regulations apply to any person and are not specific to the pharmaceutical industry. This prohibition does not prevent independent patient charities from providing balanced and factual information about treatment options, including any that are not licensed. The MHRA has published guidance on its website. The MHRA would investigate any complaint about a breach of the legislation, but has not received any complaint about the advertising of low-dose naltrexone. Whether a charity or another third party was promoting a medicine or providing non-promotional information would be decided on the facts of any specific case.
The hon. Lady will no doubt appreciate that it is in everyone’s interest to see a booming medical research industry in the UK that is successful, is meeting its requirements, and is pushing forward our development and use of advanced medicines to help to bring relief to those suffering acute illnesses or long-term conditions and to help them to manage those conditions better.
The Minister is being very clear in his exposition. The question that my constituents continually ask is why the NHS is not in the least bit interested in a treatment that is so cheap, costing about 50p a day, and appears to defer care costs into the bargain. A constituent of mine has been with their consultant to see the prescribing committee of the local PCT, but we still do not have this drug on NHS prescription.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point on behalf of her constituents. The short answer is that it is simply because there have been no clinical trials to assess the drug in its low-dosage levels, and so the conditions of the NHS, under the ways in which we operate in the provision of drugs for patients, have not been fulfilled at this stage. If she will wait for a minute or two, I will get to the nub of the point made by the hon. Member for Llanelli about how we could move forward to seek to address that situation. I hope that Annette Brooke will find the way forward helpful and positive.
The hon. Member for Llanelli will no doubt appreciate that it is in everyone’s interest to see a booming medical research industry in the UK, because that leads to real improvements in the lives of patients, their families and carers, and we are determined to support it. We demonstrated our commitment to health research by increasing spending in real terms up until 2015. In August, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health announced a record £800 million, five-year investment in a series of biomedical research centres and units, which will translate fundamental biomedical research into clinical research that benefits patients and the NHS.
The coalition Government are committed to the promotion and conduct of research as a core function of the health service. The Health and Social Care Bill, which is now passing through another place, will turn this into reality by placing appropriate powers and duties on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, NHS organisations, Monitor, and local authorities. We will make sure that the systems and processes for commissioning by the NHS Commissioning Board and by clinical commissioning groups promote, support and fund clinical research. The Government will consult on amending the NHS constitution in order to support patients to have access to novel treatments and to be part of the development of wider patient benefits, so that there is a default assumption, with an ability to opt out; that data collected as part of NHS care can be used for approved research, with appropriate protection for patient confidentiality; and that patients are content to be approached about research studies for which they may be eligible to enable them to decide whether they want a discussion about consenting to be involved in a research study.
The clinical practice research datalink will be introduced by the MHRA in partnership with the National Institute for Health Research, building on the NIHR’s research capability programme. This £60 million investment will offer data services, including providing access to data for researchers, data matching and linkage services, and data validation, to support the clinical trial and observational study work of the life sciences research community.
The NIHR will launch an updated UK clinical trials gateway in spring 2012. That website will enable patients and the public to access information about clinical trials and will be a development of the test site launched in March 2011. To increase the number of patients who can benefit from being involved in trials via the gateway, the NIHR has also developed a free smartphone app, which is available for iPhone users and will shortly be available for Android users. It provides a practical and innovative way for patients to access information about clinical trials.
I will now turn to the question of clinical trials that the hon. Member for Llanelli raised and that the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole raised, by default, in her intervention. I think that this explanation may provide the hon. Member for Llanelli with the basis for making progress in her quest. Clinical trials are a fundamental part of the drug development process, as she accepts. Trials and health research more generally are funded by a range of groups in the UK, in particular by the NIHR, the Medical Research Council, medical research charities and industry. The NIHR welcomes high-quality funding applications for research into any aspect of human health, including the use of LDN. Such applications are subject to peer review and are judged in open competition, with awards being made on the basis of the scientific quality of the proposals. As she has suggested, a new clinical trial will be required to support a licence for the use of LDN.
The MHRA regulates clinical trials on medicines when they are carried out in the UK. That includes granting approval to conduct a clinical trial and ensuring, through inspection, that the highest possible standards are maintained. However, the MHRA does not initiate clinical trials. A clinical trial needs a sponsor. Sponsors have usually come from industry, the NHS or academia. The hon. Lady is seeking Government funding for a clinical trial to prove the efficacy and safety of LDN. I can tell her that funding is available and that university-based researchers can apply for it.
The efficacy and mechanism evaluation programme is funded by the Medical Research Council and managed by the NIHR. It funds evaluation of the clinical efficacy of treatments. If evidence from such evaluations is promising, larger scale trials can follow. That is one of the purposes for which the NIHR funds the health technology assessment programme. That programme produces evidence on the effectiveness, cost and broader impact of treatments and other types of health care intervention. In the case of LDN, as with all other novel treatments, I cannot prejudge how successful that pathway of research might be, but I can tell the hon. Lady that a pathway does exist, as I have described.
In addition, the hon. Lady expressed concern about whether the systems in place make provision for patients to say what research they would like to happen. I can assure her that patients can make a suggestion for the efficacy and mechanism evaluation programme to consider. Topics prioritised for funding may be advertised, inviting researchers to submit proposals for clinical trials in those topical areas.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this subject and giving me the opportunity to explain the background to a matter of considerable interest to many people, not least some of her constituents and those of the hon. Member for Mid Dorset and North Poole. I hope the last part of my speech in particular, in which I have explained an existing avenue that they and others interested in LDN may wish to pursue, will be helpful to them.
And may I, in the spirit of Christmas, thank the hon. Lady very much for the way in which she presented her case? It was quite clear from listening to her speech that she rightly felt very strongly about the issue on behalf of not only her constituents but people up and down the country who need LDN and who, at the moment, are having to go through the procedures that she described.
Question put and agreed to.