Cancer charities have today condemned the decision by the health watchdog not to make two bowel cancer drugs available on the NHS.
The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (Nice) decided that bevacizumab (Avastin) and cetuximab (Erbitux), which cost £17,000 and £12,000 per patient respectively, were not cost effective given the other demands on the NHS budget.
But charities have urged the watchdog to reconsider its decision, noting that the drugs - which have been found to extend the lives of bowel cancer sufferers by an average of five months - are available in every other European country.
"The decision by Nice not to make these drugs routinely available on the NHS to appropriate patients is a scandal and we strongly urge Nice to reconsider its decision," said Hilary Whittaker, chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer.
Bowel cancer is the third most common cancer in the UK, and about 30,000 new cases of the disease were reported in England and Wales in 2004. It makes up 12 per cent of all new cancer cases among women, and 14 per cent among men.
"We feel extremely disappointed that bowel cancer - the second biggest cancer killer - is not being given the attention or funding it deserves," Ms Whittaker continued.
"It is terrible that, for those people who sadly find themselves battling with this disease, the value placed on their lives seems to be so minimal, with effective and licensed treatments today put out of reach for the majority of patients."
Charities will have an opportunity to appeal Nice's decision, but the row reveals the difficulty the watchdog has in managing different priorities on the NHS. Many feel that cost should not be an overriding factor in deciding which drugs are available.
Joanne Rule, chief executive of Cancerbackup, today argued that pharmaceutical companies must find a way of making their treatments more affordable, to allow the thousands of patients who cannot afford private care access to them.
"There must surely be smarter ways to negotiate on price. We urge the manufacturers, the Department of Health and Nice to meet urgently to find ways to make cancer treatments more affordable," she argued.
"Without change, we will simply perpetuate a two-tier system in which important treatments will only be available to those who can afford to pay."