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Hardly a week goes by without reading of a new medical breakthrough or researchers publishing encouraging results on a pioneering new treatment, yet it can be many years until these new treatments or medicines are actually available.

Every new treatment or medical device quite rightly requires extensive testing and clinical trials to make sure it is safe for people to use, but for those who could benefit, the process seems painfully slow. In the most harrowing cases, new ‘breakthrough’ treatments are only officially approved after someone who could have benefited has passed away, leaving their loved ones asking why must the process take so long?

Now efforts are under way to reduce the time it takes for these new, potentially life-changing medicines to reach the patients who need them. From April next year, around five new drugs or medical devices each year will be chosen by a panel of experts for a streamlined ‘fast track’ scheme. It means these fast-tracked products could be available for patients up to four years earlier than normal, which still undergoing the same rigorous testing.

The panel selecting products to be fast-tracked will be headed by Sir Andrew Witty, the former head of multi-national drug company GlaxoSmithKline. Several criteria will be used in selecting the products, including how many people they would benefit, how great that benefit would be, and the likely complexity of testing and trials.

A good example is a new type of glucose monitor for use by people with Type 1 Diabetes, which became available on the NHS earlier this year. It means they no longer have to regularly prick their fingers to get a blood sample for testing. According to Health Ministers, if the device had gone through the new fast track system they are now proposing, it could have been made available on the NHS much earlier.

The government’s new fast tracking scheme will also provide financial support to help companies develop new treatments more quickly, especially small and medium-sized firms which might lack the resources to speed up their processes. In return, companies receiving cash support will be expected to deliver products which represent good value for money for the NHS, funded by British taxpayers.

The initiative has been welcomed by the pharmaceutical industry and by various charities dedicated to finding new treatments for particular illnesses or medical conditions. Dr Richard Torbett, from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, praised the government’s commitment to speeding up access to the most effective new treatments.

“This should benefit thousands of NHS patients,” he said, “as well as delivering significant long-term savings for the health service if appropriate investment in these transformative therapies is made available.”

Nic Bungay, from the charity Muscular Dystrophy UK, said people with the condition could deteriorate rapidly while waiting for new drugs, which could potentially help them, to be made available. He was keen to know more details of how the treatments earmarked for fast-tracking would be selected, but still welcomed the news, saying: “We hope the new scheme will go some way to ending bureaucratic delays and speeding up access to new drugs.”

Another aspect which could benefit, is in licensing existing drugs for use in treating conditions where they have been found to have beneficial effects, even though they were not originally developed for those conditions. For example, a recent study found that anticoagulant (blood-thinning) drugs used in the prevention of blood clots and stroke could also significantly reduce the risk of developing dementia or help slow its progress. More testing and evaluation would be needed before prescribing such drugs to treat dementia, but this work would be eligible for the fast track process.

It is hoped that if the new scheme proves effective, it could be expanded in future to include more new treatments each year, and that lessons learned in the fast-tracking process could be more widely applied throughout the pharmaceutical testing industry.

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