BMJ says pharma giant is trying to block access to a drug that would save the NHS millions

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) has accused pharmaceutical giant Novartis of deliberately hindering research into the use of anticancer drug Avastin (bevacizumab) to treat age-related wet macular degeneration (AMD) in place of the more expensive Lucentis (ranibizumab).

Avastin is not currently approved to treat eye diseases, but there is a growing body of evidence to suggest it could have similar therapeutic effects to Lucentis. It is much cheaper (around £30 per dose compared with £1300), and the BMJ says that allowing doctors to prescribe it for this purpose could save the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) £100 million a year.

Both drugs were developed by Roche, but Lucentis is marketed by Novartis outside the US. The medical journal carried out an investigation, and claims to have uncovered evidence that Novartis tried to ‘derail’ clinical trials in the UK. They say healthcare professionals linked to the company encouraged primary care trusts to pull out of one trial, and that Novartis targeted another publically funded trial, encouraging researchers to take part in Novartis-funded research instead.

The BMJ’s editor in chief, Fiona Godlee, repeated calls for Avastin to be made available for AMD treatment on the NHS. ‘Doctors and academics have carried out clinical trials despite threats and intimidation – and doctors leaders should follow suit and not allow themselves to be bullied,’ she said in a statement.

Novartis has denied the allegations.