Watchdog urged to allow cancer drug to protect sight

A cheap drug which prevents sight loss is effective and should be prescribed, experts said today.

Avastin, which is licensed for bowel cancer, is also used "off-label" worldwide to treat wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a leading cause of blindness in Britain.

Although it is not licensed for wet AMD, Avastin has been found to be effective and is cheaper than the licensed drug, Lucentis. Lucentis costs about 10,000 per patient on average. There is currently no established cost for Avastin for wet AMD.

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The Department of Health has asked the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (Nice) to examine whether Avastin would be suitable for more widespread treatment of wet AMD patients on the NHS.

Two clinical trials comparing the use of Avastin and Lucentis are expected to publish results in late 2011 and early 2012.

Wet AMD is caused by abnormal growth of blood vessels around the eye.

It can be treated by stopping the growth of a natural protein called vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF).

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Avastin inhibits the function of VEGF to stop tumour growth by preventing the formation of new blood vessels.

Today's research, published online by the British Medical Journal (BMJ), said Avastin should be implemented immediately in those countries that cannot afford Lucentis.

Experts from London, Bristol and Cheltenham carried out a trial in 2006 comparing Avastin with other treatments available then, although they did not specifically look at Lucentis.

Publishing their results today, they found that of the 131 patients studied, those given Avastin injections gained the ability to read letters off a chart and did not "lose" as many letters as patients given other treatments. The patients were typically aged 81.

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The authors concluded: "A third of patients (given Avastin) gained 15 or more letters of visual acuity ... compared with 3 per cent in the standard care group. (Avastin) treatment is associated with a greater chance of moderate vision recovery."

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