Torfaen MP Nick Thomas-Symonds has said he is ‘thrilled’ to see the Access to Medical Treatments (Innovation) Bill receive Royal Assent this week. The new Act will improve access to cheap, potentially lifesaving drugs and could save much needed cash for the Welsh NHS. Its passage into law marks the end of a long parliamentary journey and extensive campaign from the local MP.

The Act empowers the Secretary of State for Health to create a database of innovative medical treatments, including new uses of existing drugs, off-label. The database will raise awareness of the off-label use of existing drugs which have been proven to be effective for other conditions. This includes drugs for breast cancer, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and prostate cancer and the list is likely to grow rapidly as more new uses are found for old drugs. These ‘repurposed’ drugs, which are often very cheap, are regularly prescribed in specialist centres but are not consistently used across the country. It is thought that their routine use could not only save lives but save the NHS money.

The journey to achieving this began back in June last year, when the newly elected MP was drawn in the Private Member’s Bill ballot, giving him the chance to bring forward a bill of his choice. Mr Thomas-Symonds chose the Off-patent Drugs Bill, with the aim of improving access to low-cost treatments for a range of conditions including breast cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s.
Explaining his choice at the time he said, “I wanted to bring forward a Bill that would have the greatest possible impact on the lives of my constituents and I believe that the Off-patent Drugs Bill will do just that.

In the short time I have been an MP I have already met many constituents who have been affected by these terrible diseases and seen the impact it has had on their lives and on those of their family and friends. I also know this first hand, having lost my grandmother, Olwyn Thomas, to breast cancer just before my A level exams. It was she who inspired me to go into politics, and then to become a Breast Cancer Ambassador, and passing this Bill would be a wonderful tribute to her.”

However despite having cross-party support and the backing of senior clinicians, the British Medical Association, four of the Medical Royal Colleges and 12 medical research charities the Bill was blocked last November, causing a great deal of anger. At the time, the Government said that whilst they agreed with the Bill’s intentions, they could not support the mechanism which it proposed.

Since then Mr Thomas-Symonds has continued to campaign on the issue and has been working hard to build on the momentum from his Bill and to find a way forward. Eventually Nick joined forces with fellow MP Chris Heaton Harris to look at how Mr Heaton Harris’ Private Members’ Bill, on access to medical treatments could address the issue. Together with SNP spokesperson and breast cancer surgeon Philippa Whitford and Conservative MP Jo Churchill – a three time breast cancer sufferer and passionate campaigner on medical research issues – they amended the Bill extensively, removing sections that were controversial in the medical community and adding key measures on off-label prescribing. With the support of MP from all parties it received Royal Assent yesterday, officially becoming an Act of Parliament.

As well as improving access to off-label medicines, the Act has the potential to make a real difference to patients by encouraging and expediting the spread of innovative, evidence based treatments, especially those for rare conditions or conditions where there is no currently licensed treatment. By creating a database of innovative medicines with clinically credible evidence of benefit to particular patient groups, the Act is intended to accelerate uptake and dissemination of innovative drugs and ensure data is shared across different research centres so that both the successes and failures of new treatments are readily available to clinicians up and down the country. Furthermore, by facilitating better information sharing it is hoped that it will support and encourage medical research in new areas.

Nick Thomas-Symonds MP said, “I am thrilled to have secured these important steps forward on off-patent drugs. These measures will help to ensure that patients in Torfaen and across the UK have access to cheap, potentially life-saving drugs.

“As I’ve learned first-hand, Private Members’ Bills rarely make it into law, but this is a great example of how by working together MPs can use the parliamentary system to extensively deliberate, debate and amend a Bill and achieve something that will have a real and lasting benefit for their constituents.

“I am delighted with the progress we’ve made, but there is still more to do and I will continue to campaign on this issue and to maintain pressure on the Minister to deliver on the further, non-legislative measures that he has promised.”

Chris Heaton Harris said, “In an age of ever-evolving medical treatment, this Bill will make sure the amazing work that goes on in our NHS every day is not isolated to one hospital, surgery or practice, but is easily seen and accessed by every registered medical practitioner searching for the best treatment. The appetite for encouraging access to new drugs and for innovative uses of existing drugs off-label has been made very clear throughout the passage of this Bill and I am delighted these measures have finally made it into law.”

Jo Churchill MP also welcomed the Bill’s success, saying, “Despite the defeat of the Off-Patent Drugs Bill, the cross party advocacy for greater access to treatments, made collaboration across the House the key to unlocking patient benefits. Working together with my parliamentary colleagues on the Medical Treatment (Innovations) Bill it has been possible to advocate for the broader use of repurposed drugs. It has shown what can be achieved by Parliament to the benefit of patients.

“As a former patient and healthcare campaigner, these outcomes are a priority to me. Now, with the power to use repurposed, off-patent drugs as well as the delivery of a database; the treatment of cancer and rare diseases will be advanced. My hope is that, off the back of both science and sensibility, more lives can be saved.”

Minister for Life Sciences George Freeman, who is a key advocate for supporting medical innovation said, “Whilst it is unusual for Ministers to work on a cross-party basis to support a Private Members Bill and the Government could not support the mechanisms in the original Bill, I was determined to try and help find a mechanism to promote access to innovative medicines which we can all agree on. This is a great day for Parliament and patients.”

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