Untested drugs: how the Medical Innovation Bill will work

Some cancer patients will be allowed to take unlicensed medicines under the Medical Innovation Bill

(Image credit: Scott Barbour/Getty )

A bill allowing seriously ill people to take medicines that have not been subjected to rigorous testing has received government support.

The Medical Innovation Bill, originally proposed by Lord Saatchi, has passed through its second reading and reached the committee stage of approval. The health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has put his department's weight behind the bill, which will be debated in parliament this week.

Supporters say that the bill now has a 75 per cent chance of becoming law. If passed, it would allow some people dying of cancer to take unlicensed drugs – a notion that has divided the medical community.

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What is the Medical Innovation Bill?

The Medical Innovation Bill would make it easier for doctors to prescribe new treatments to patients without the fear of being sued. Effectively, it provides a layer of legal protection to doctors hoping to try different treatments on patients after having exhausted all other options.

One of the bill's aims is to help to encourage pharmaceutical companies to put money behind experimental drugs that are only intended to treat a small number of diseases, the BBC reports.

Who proposed the bill?

The bill was proposed by advertising mogul Lord Saatchi, who began campaigning for the issue after his wife Josephine Hart died from ovarian cancer.

Hunt told the Daily Telegraph: "In dealing with the deadly Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organisation has decided that departure from standard evidence-based treatment is fully justified and essential. It has set ethical guidelines for the use of new therapies and interventions [and] they are identical to the provisions of the Medical Innovation Bill."

During the bill's second reading, Saatchi told peers: "All cancer deaths are wasted lives. Scientific knowledge has not advance by one centimetre as a result of all these deaths, because the current law requires the deceased receive only the standard procedure – the endless repetition of a failed experiment. The current law is a barrier to progress in curing cancer."

Why is the bill controversial?

The proposed law has "sharply divided the medical profession", the Telegraph says. Prior to the most recent round of amendments, which introduced new safeguards for patients, critics had labelled the bill a "quacks' charter" worrying that experimental medicines could end up being prescribed by an individual doctor without any further consultation.

However, the most recent revisions to the bill require that at least two specialists assent before an untested medical treatment is given to a patient.

The changes led to the Department of Health lend its support to the bill.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "Innovation is at the heart of modernising the NHS and is essential for improving treatments and finding new cures and work on the Medical Innovation Bill is ongoing. We are pleased that Lord Saatchi has tabled amendments to the bill to help ensure patient and staff safety."

Despite the changes, other doctors still remain concerned over the bill's potential impact. Michael Baum, Professor Emeritus of Surgery at University College London, said: "Changing the law with this bill is not going to accelerate innovation in cancer therapy, but might, as a result of unintended consequences, endanger our patients by uncontrolled experimentation."

The legislation will be debated by the House of Lords on Friday.

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