NHS rolls out ‘COVID-friendly’ cancer treatments

‘COVID-friendly’ cancer treatments that are safer for patients during the pandemic will be expanded and extended through a £160 million initiative, NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens announced today.

The funding will pay for drugs that treat patients without having such a big impact on their immune system or offer other benefits such as fewer hospital visits.

Thousands of patients have already benefitted from almost 50 treatments approved for use as ‘swaps’ for existing drugs and more will be available from this week, thanks to a series of deals struck between the NHS and pharma companies.

Some of these new options mean that patients can take tablets at home or receive medicines with fewer side-effects instead of undergoing hospital-based treatment that can leave them more susceptible to coronavirus and other infections.

Targeted hormone therapies such as enzalutamide for prostate cancer and broadened use of lenalidomide in the treatment of myeloma – bone marrow cancer – are among the options now available for clinicians and patients.

The funding for COVID-friendly drugs is just one of the innovations adopted by the NHS to care for patients since the first case was confirmed in this country on January 31.

The introduction of ‘111 First’ has provided help and advice to millions of patients over the phone and internet, ensuring those who need medical help are directed to the right services.

Remote consultations have spared many more unnecessary trips to the doctor’s surgery or outpatients clinic, with more than 500,000 GP online consultations a week.

Covid-secure cancer hubs have been set up to safely provide surgery for those who need it.

NHS chief executive Simon Stevens said: “Since the first case of COVID in England six months ago, NHS staff have fast tracked new, innovative ways of working so that other services, including A&E, cancer and maternity could continue safely for patients and it is thanks to these incredible efforts that 65,000 people could start treatment for cancer during the pandemic.

“We are now adopting new, kinder treatment options which are not only effective but safer for use during the COVID-19 pandemic and more convenient for thousands of patients, who can take medication at home or be given medicines with less harmful effects on their immune system.”

New analysis shows that these less risky but effective cancer therapies have been given to almost 2,000 people during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing their treatment to go ahead when it might otherwise have been delayed or not safe to give at all.

Other treatment options now available include:

  • Venetoclax in acute myeloid leukaemia as an oral alternative to more toxic standard chemotherapy
  • Nivolumab for patients with bowel cancer whose cancers have a specific genetic fingerprint
  • Ixazomib in myeloma as an oral alternative to treatment which would require more hospital visits and injections
  • Atezolizumab as first-line immunotherapy for bladder cancer instead of chemotherapy.

Funding will ensure that thousands of patients can continue to receive safe, effective and kinder treatment during the pandemic, often with fewer hospital visits.

Carl, 48 from Buxton, Derbyshire was diagnosed with Bowel Cancer in January 2019 caused by Lynch Syndrome and is now receiving Nivolumab.

Carl said: “The side effects from various chemotherapy meant it was difficult to live a normal daily life. Switching to immunotherapy has made a positive difference with considerable less side effects which is enabling me to enjoy a higher quality of life”

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s chief executive, said: “This is encouraging news for some patients, who could now go ahead with their treatment, when it might have previously been on hold due to COVID-19. In recent years, successful price negotiations between the NHS and drug manufacturers have significantly improved patients’ access to new cancer medicines, but cancer doesn’t stop because of a pandemic, so it’s fantastic to see this work continuing throughout this difficult period.

“Steps like this to adapt the care patients can be offered together with the creation of COVID-protected safe spaces, will be critical in minimising the impact on people with cancer and ensuring their survival.”

Genevieve Edwards, Chief Executive, Bowel Cancer UK said: “It is encouraging to see how the NHS and industry have worked together during the COVID-19 pandemic to provide access for bowel cancer treatment that can be taken safely from home, and minimize the impact on patients’ immune systems

“We hope this nimble approach to treatment access will result in quicker decision making in the future, should treatments be deemed safe and effective for patients.”

Heather Blake, Director of Support & Influencing, Prostate Cancer UK, said: “We’re delighted that NHS England are continuing to make the targeted hormone therapy enzalutamide available to men who are newly diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer.

“These men would normally have had chemotherapy, but this treatment could compromise their immune system and increase their COVID-19 risk.”

Jane Lyons, CEO of Cancer52 said: “It is imperative that everyone with cancer receives the right treatment for them. We are therefore very pleased to see that some of the positive changes in patient treatment and care that have come about during the pandemic are to be rolled out.  Many of these changes were welcomed by the more than 1,000 people with rare and less common cancer in England who completed our recent survey about their experiences during the pandemic.”