Coalition aims to improve cancer drug access in poorer nations

Several of the top pharmaceutical companies have joined a new coalition that aims to improve access to cancer medicines in low- and lower-middle-income countries (LLMICs).

The new initiative – called ATOM (Access to Oncology Medicines) – pledges to tackle the issue that fewer than 50% of the cancer medicines on the World Health Organization’s essential medicines list are available in developing nations around the world.

Unless action is taken, premature deaths from cancer in LLMICs are expected to rise from 2.3 million in 2020 to 4 million by 2040, according to ATOM’s members.

The Union for International Cancer Control (UICC) is taking the lead on the coalition, with drugmakers including AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Gilead Sciences, Novartis, Roche, Sanofi and Teva among the first to sign up to the scheme along with public health groups.

The aims of the scheme go beyond making sure that oncology medicines are affordable, according to Prof Anil D’Cruz, president of UICC and director of oncology at the Apollo Hospitals group in India.

It is taking a broader approach, making sure patients living with cancer “receive the medicines they need at the right time,” he said.

“This new partnership is set up to ensure that [LLMICs] get the support they need to receive the essential cancer medicines where they are currently lacking as well as the training on their use so that their availability becomes sustainable long term.”

ATOM will try to make its approach flexible, so that it can address the specific burden of cancer in each country.

In one of the first moves by a member of ATOM, Novartis has agreed to license rights to its tyrosine kinase inhibitor drug nilotinib – sold as Tasigna as a leukaemia treatment – to the UN-backed Medicines Patent Pool (MPP).

Nilotinib looks set to become the first cancer therapy to be signed over to the MPP, which to date has focused mainly on infectious disease medicines including drugs for HIV and COVID-19.

The license will allow generic drugmakers to manufacture nilotinib, reducing its cost, and the expectation is that other pharma companies may offer their medicines to the MPP in this way as the initiative gathers momentum.

While its patents expire in 2023, nilotinib will allow partners to evaluate the ATOM model and determine its viability, said Novartis’ chief strategy and growth officer Dr Lutz Hegemann.

“We have seen great gains in cancer survival in the richest countries over the last decade, however, the benefits of these advancements are not reaching everyone – leaving a risk of cancer becoming a disease that disproportionately kills the poor,” he said.

“As part of Novartis’s commitment to address the needs of underserved populations and bring our medicines to patients, no matter where they live, we are proud to be the first pharmaceutical company to contribute a targeted therapy to this coalition.”

In the coming years, ATOM will also work with governments to assess the specific needs of LLMICs with regard to cancer, plus gaps in medicines availability, and help to build sustainable financing to pay for the healthcare staff and drugs needed for treatment.

It will also support the countries in building diagnostic and pathology capacity and streamlining regulatory processes.

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