New drug approved on NHS reduces risk of relapse of rare blood cancer by a quarter

NHS patients being treated for an aggressive type of blood cancer will now benefit from a potent drug that can slash the risk of their disease returning.

Experts say that the medicine, called Polivy, could drastically improve survival rates for the 5,000 Britons who each year develop the condition, diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. A third of sufferers don’t survive more than five years after diagnosis.

The treatment has been approved by the NHS drug watchdog, the National Institute For Health and Care Excellence (NICE), after studies showed that it hugely outperformed the current treatment, with leading blood cancer experts declaring it a ‘game changer’ for some patients.

‘There hasn’t been any real breakthrough in the treatment of this type of blood cancer for the last 20 years or so, but Polivy has shown clear benefits in terms of reducing the risk of relapse,’ says Professor George Follows, consultant haematologist at Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

‘If you respond to this drug, it’s a huge game changer.’

NHS patients being treated for an aggressive type of blood cancer will now benefit from a potent drug that can slash the risk of their disease returning

Researchers found the average relapse rate in patients given Polivy dropped by a quarter in the two years after treatment, according to a trial published in The New England Journal Of Medicine.

However, a subset of patients with a specific type of the disease, called non-germinal centre B-cell lymphoma, were found to benefit even more, with the chance of relapse dropping by two thirds. The condition develops when the body’s fighter blood cells, called B cells, develop abnormally and bind together to form lumps in the neck, armpit or groin.

The malfunctioning cells also impair the body’s ability to fight infection and can send the immune system awry.

This type of blood cancer can affect people of all ages, but it is more common around the age of 70.

Doctors tackle the condition with a combination of chemotherapy drugs, a steroid and another cancer-destroying medicine, but many patients still see their cancer come back within a few years and a third eventually lose their lives to it.

Polivy, also called polatuzumab vedotin, is an antibody-drug conjugate – medicines that deliver chemotherapy agents into each cancer cell to destroy them from the inside.

It is given in addition to the traditional drug regime via a 90-minute infusion in hospital once every three weeks.

Polivy usually costs about £72,000 per patient for a four-month course. However, NICE has negotiated a discount with the manufacturer – Swiss-based pharmaceutical firm Roche – which means the infusion qualifies as a cost-effective option for the cash-strapped NHS.

Phyll McCarthy, 76, was one of the first in the UK to benefit from Polivy. The mother-of-two, from Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, noticed a small swelling near her armpit in September 2021. Her GP referred her to hospital for a scan.

‘I wasn’t really concerned,’ says Phyll. ‘It wasn’t painful and the swelling went down a bit after I’d had the scan.’

But a biopsy a few weeks later revealed she had an aggressive diffuse large B-cell lymphoma and needed prompt treatment.

She had private medical insurance, meaning she was able to seek treatment almost immediately.

Phyll saw Prof Follows at the private Genesis Care clinic in Oxford who persuaded her insurer to cover the cost of the new treatment.

‘I had my first treatment in early 2022 and, after just two of the scheduled eight sessions, tests showed I was already in remission,’ says Phyll. ‘That was great news.’

But there were some low points.

‘The chemotherapy made my lovely, long, dark hair fall out and it has taken a while to grow back,’ she says.

‘But my regular scans continue to show no sign of the cancer. It’s too early to say that I’m cured – I need to be cancer-free for five years before we can say that.

‘It’s great news that many more people will now be able to benefit from this treatment on the NHS.’