Majority of recent cancer drugs approved for use in UK show no survival benefits, study finds

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The majority of cancer drugs approved for use in the UK in recent years are not proven to extend life, research has found.

Researchers said patients were being given “false hope” by drugs which claimed major “breakthroughs” when there was no evidence they could increase survival or quality of life.

The study published in the BMJ examined 48 medications approved by the  European Medicines Agency (EMA) to treat 68 separate cancers from 2009 to 2013.

It found that in two thirds of cases, drugs came into the market without clear evdience they could improve survival.

And even five years on, almost half the drugs still showed no survival benefits, and where they did, the difference was “clinically insignificant” researchers from King’s College London and the London School of Economics found.

Researchers said drugs were being passed for use across Europe on the basis of indirect measures – such as showing that medication had a biological effect on the body – rather than actual proof they could benefit patients.

In numbers | Cancer in the UK


Number of lives which could be saved with earlier diagnosis


Number of people diagnosed with cancer each year (2013)


Annual deaths from cancer (2012)


Chance of living at least 10 years after cancer diagnosis (as of 2010-11)


Percentage of cancer cases which are preventable

Source: Cancer Research UK

Dr Courtney Davis, of King’s College London, and colleagues said: “When expensive drugs that lack robust evidence of clinical benefit are approved and reimbursed within publicly funded healthcare systems, individual patients may be harmed and public funds wasted.”

Fellow author Huseyin Naci, Assistant Professor in LSE’s Department of Health Policy, said: “It is remarkable that so few cancer drugs enter the European market without any clear data on outcomes that matter to patients and their doctors: longer survival and better quality of life. There is a clear need to raise the bar for approving new cancer drugs.”

In a linked editorial, Professor Vinay Prasad, of Oregon Health & Science University, said findings showed that the EU system was “broken” and taking some decisions which were “absolutely unjustifiable”.

Dr Deborah Cohen, associate editor at The BMJ,  said: “The fact so many of the new drugs on the market lack good evidence that they improve patient outcomes puts governments in a difficult position when it comes to deciding which treatments to fund.

“But regulatory sanctioning of a comparator that lacks robust evidence of efficacy means the cycle of weak evidence and uncertainty continues.”

Emma Greenwood, Cancer Research UK’s director of policy, said: “This study doesn’t necessarily show us what’s happening here in the UK.

“While the European Medicines Agency (EMA) decides which new drugs are safe to be sold in Europe, it’s national bodies like Nice (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) that decide which drugs should be made available to patients.

“Nice makes these decisions based on the clinical effectiveness and the cost of a drug to determine whether it will bring value to patients and the NHS.

“But the study does highlight the importance of using real-world evidence from patients, on top of data from clinical trials, to build our understanding of how drugs work in a real life setting.”

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