Posted on 13 November 2023

​Triple negative breast cancer is one of the most feared types of cancer by patients and clinicians alike because of the high mortality rates, although a new lifeline is available. The NHS is to roll out an innovative and potentially life-saving treatment for one of the deadliest forms of breast cancer thanks to a new drugs deal. Up to 1,600 women a year affected by high-risk triple negative breast cancer are expected to benefit from the confidential agreement reached between the NHS and the manufacturer. Pembrolizumab (brand name Keytruda®), used in combination with chemotherapy, reduces the risk of breast cancer progression by nearly two-fifths.

The drug works by stimulating the body's immune system to fight cancer cells. Pembrolizumab is a type of monoclonal antibody, a type of antibody which has seen use in conditions including coronavirus disease. This antibody, called an immune checkpoint inhibitor is an immunotherapy which reverses the cancerous protective effect which makes it hard for cancer cells to be destroyed and detected by the patient’s immune system. This antibody binds to the protein PD-1 on the surface of immune cells called T cells and stops the protective mechanism cancer cells develop. This allows the immune system to attack and kill the cancer cells.

Speaking on the triumph of the deal, Minister for Health, Helen Whately, said: “We are committed to delivering world-class cancer care, and constantly working to find innovative, life-saving treatments. This treatment will give new hope to thousands of breast cancer patients at the highest risk, and has been made possible by the governments £340 million Cancer Drugs Fund, which has already fast tracked almost 100 cancer treatments and benefitted over 80,000 patients since 2016”.

The drug, when injected directly into the bloodstream every three to six weeks for around a year, will be immediately funded by the NHS to provide access for eligible patients. Triple negative breast cancer affects approximately 8,000 women each year, accounting for 15% of all breast cancer cases. The disease is difficult to treat with a shorter survival time than most other breast cancers and disproportionately affects women under 40 and those of black origin. This will be the 25th breast cancer treatment to be fast-tracked for patients thanks to funding from the Cancer Drugs Fund and the second treatment for triple-negative breast cancer to be introduced on NHS this year.

The cancer is renowned for being extremely aggressive and can develop into a terminal cancer in an incredibly short period of time. Looking at the stats, for stage 2 cancer that has spread into nearby lymph node, the five-year survival rate is 65 percent. For cancer that has spread further into the body and into the bones, lungs or liver (such as end stage), survival is 12 percent. Revolutionary medical technologies, AI and international collaboration are bringing even more products to market than ever, although a different regulatory market in the UK means drugs like Pembrolizumab which have been available in the US under right-to-try for many years are only just being rolled out.

NHS chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, said: “This is a hugely significant moment for women – the NHS has struck a new deal to roll out a potentially life-saving drug for patients suffering with the most aggressive form of breast cancer that has been traditionally very difficult to treat. It is fantastic news for around 1,600 women across the country each year who have either been diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer or will be in the coming years – it will give hope to those who are diagnosed and prevent the cancer from progressing allowing people to live normal, healthy, lives”. Finalising her thoughts on the move, Pritchard added, “This is just the latest commercial drug deal that the NHS has struck for patients – once again highlighting the innovative treatments available at a price that represents good value for money for taxpayers”.

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