Patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL), the most common form of adult leukaemia, will now be able to obtain the drug rituximab (MabThera) on the NHS after the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) issued its final guidance on the therapy.
NICE has decided that rituximab should be made available as a first-line treatment, but only if used in combination with fludarabine and cyclophosphamide chemotherapy.
Rituximab is a type of biological therapy called a monoclonal antibody, which targets a protein on the surface of leukaemia cells.
The antibody attaches to these proteins so that the body's immune system recognises the need to destroy the cells.
Clinical trials of rituximab have shown that it can stop the disease from progressing for 10.5 months longer than chemotherapy alone, typically increasing progression-free survival from 2.7 years to 3.5 years.
It was also found to double the number of CLL patients who achieved complete remission compared with chemotherapy alone (36 per cent compared with 17 per cent).
Commenting on the decision to approve rituximab, Dr Carole Longson, director of the institute's Health Technology Evaluation Centre, said that the guidance "increases the treatment options available to people with this condition, wherever they live in England and Wales".
"After looking at all of the available evidence, the independent appraisal committee concluded that rituximab, when used as a first-line treatment for people with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia who are able to take fludarabine in combination with cyclophosphamide, represented an effective use of NHS resources," she explained.
Professor John Gribben, consultant haematologist and medical oncologist at Barts and the London NHS Trust, said that the NICE guidance is "great news" for both patients and clinicians as the therapy provides "significant benefits compared to chemotherapy alone".
He revealed: "The ability to add rituximab to chemotherapy is a major advance in the way we can treat chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.
"Where previously our goal was just to improve symptoms, for the first time we now have a treatment combination that is capable of producing much higher remission rates and more durable responses."
Professor Peter Johnson, Cancer Research UK's chief clinician, said: "Rituximab has already had a big impact on the chances of survival for patients with lymphoma. This new announcement is further good news for patients with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.
"The development of this drug is an excellent example of how quality scientific research continues helping us to make progress in developing new drugs."
(Source: Cancer research UK.Website HERE.)