Novartis wants U.K. to quash off-label Avastin use

Novartis ($NVS) is taking up arms against British eye doctors who use Roche's ($RHHBY) Avastin. Novartis markets Lucentis, a much pricier treatment for wet age-related macular degeneration. Lucentis is licensed for that use. It's recommended for that use by the U.K.'s cost-effectiveness gatekeepers. Avastin is not.

Some local National Health Service operations are repackaging Avastin, a cancer drug that's actually related to Lucentis, into syringes for eye use. While quite expensive as a cancer treatment, at such tiny doses, Avastin costs a tiny fraction of Lucentis' price. Novartis is asking a U.K. court to review NHS reimbursements for off-label Avastin treatment.

The U.K. debate mirrors another in the U.S., where repackaged Avastin has been broadly used by eye doctors. Recent head-to-head study data suggested that Avastin was as effective at treating wet AMD as Lucentis, but the cheaper drug presented a higher risk of side effects. The off-label Avastin use also got some negative publicity last year after several clusters of eye infections, some of which led to vision loss, were linked to the drug.

Novartis is using Avastin's side-effects risks to bolster its case for Lucentis. "It is unacceptable to put the safety of patients at risk through the widespread use of an unlicensed treatment when a licensed medicine is available," Novartis said in a statement. "It undermines the regulatory process that was introduced to safeguard patients."

The local NHS operations, however, say that Avastin is safe, the BBC reports. "Avastin is internationally recognized as an effective treatment for AMD, and, for example, over 50% of AMD patients in the United States are treated with Avastin," officials said.

With its top-seller Diovan facing generic competition, Novartis is leaning on newer products such as Lucentis to take up the slack. As Reuters points out, the eye drug's sales jumped by 30% in the first quarter, to $567 million.

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