December 20, 2005

Experts from the UK's health industry are to review a planned ban on the use of new Alzheimer's drugs on the state-run healthcare provider the National Health Service (NHS). The decision has caused an outcry from both patients and drug companies, who fear that prescriptions for new patients will be cancelled.

Drug regulators around the world are currently facing similar decisions as they are forced to weigh up the benefits of modern medicines compared against their price. In a preliminary ruling, the UK's National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) decided that that anti-cholinesterase drugs -- which can help some Alzheimer's patients but offer no cure -- were not cost effective.

However, NICE is considering making the treatments available for certain groups of patients if they can be shown to particularly benefit. Re-analysis, conducted by drug companies, has demonstrated that 30-68% of people will "respond" to the drugs, although they could not identify any group of patients likely to do better than others. Industry observers are hoping that these new findings will be enough to convince NICE that the cost-effectiveness has been underestimated. The drugs are priced at GBP1,000 (US$1,762) per patient per year.

Alzheimer's is a growing problem around the globe, with the incidence of dementia set to double every 20 years, reaching 81mn sufferers by 2040. In the UK, 400,000 people suffer from the condition.