The ongoing saga of Roche's eye drug Lucentis and its involuntary competition with sister drug Avastin has taken a new turn. Regional officials with the U.K.'s National Health Service are approving use of Avastin--which doesn't have the regulatory OK as an eye treatment--to fight wet age-related macular degeneration. It's a cost-saving move that some regions figure will free up £5 million ($7.9 million) per year in their budgets.
The background is familiar to anyone following the story. Lucentis runs about $2,000 per injection. Avastin, when repackaged in the small doses used by eye doctors, runs less than $100. The two drugs are very similar, but Lucentis has been tweaked specifically for use in the eye. It also comes in sterile packaging for ophthalmologists, whereas Avastin has to be divided by pharmacies, posing an infection risk. In fact, several clusters of severe infections, some of which led to vision loss, have arisen in recent months in the U.S.
The NHS authorities aren't requiring use of Avastin over Lucentis, officials tell InPharm. They're just authorizing Avastin as a choice. But NHS trusts are actually pressing use of Avastin despite opposition from Novartis ($NVS), which markets Lucentis in the U.K., and Roche, which makes both drugs, the Financial Times reports. Some patient advocacy groups are also against the move, citing potential safety problems.
Novartis' medical director in the U.K., Tim Cave, told the FT the company is considering cutting the price of Lucentis. "We're worried that in looking at efficiency people are throwing out the principle of keeping patients safe," Cave told the newspaper. And a price cut wouldn't be unprecedented. Just last week, Swiss officials said they'd persuaded Novartis to discount Lucentis by 30%.