Thousands of women in England who are at increased risk of breast cancer could benefit from a proven risk-reducing drug on the NHS after it was 're-purposed' for a new use in helping prevent the disease.
Anastrozole, which has been used for many years as a breast cancer treatment, has been licensed by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) as an option for preventing breast cancer.
Around 56,000 women in the UK are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, according to Cancer Research UK. In England, breast cancer remained the most common cancer, with 47,000 women being diagnosed with the disease each year, highlighted NHS England.
Anastrozole lowers oestrogen levels by preventing the synthesis of oestrogen from adrenal androgens by inhibiting the enzyme aromatase, which converts these androgens (primarily androstenedione and testosterone) into oestrogen. This slows the growth of oestrogen dependent tumours.
The drug, which is taken as a 1 mg tablet once a day for 5 years, had been shown in trials to reduce the incidence of the disease in postmenopausal women at increased risk by almost 50%. It was first recommended as a preventive option by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in 2017. However, uptake had remained low because the treatment was unlicensed for this use.
Almost 300,000 Women in England Set to Benefit
By 're-purposing' it as a preventative therapy, together with MHRA licensing, an estimated 288,878 postmenopausal women in England aged 50 to 69 years could be eligible for the drug.
NHS England estimated that if a quarter of women eligible for treatment with the drug take up the offer, just over 2000 cases of breast cancer would be prevented over their lifetimes, saving the NHS around £15 million in treatment costs.
Medicines Repurposing Programme
Anastrozole is the first medicine to be repurposed through the Medicines Repurposing Programme. Established in 2021, and led by NHS England, the multi-agency national programme examines how existing medicines can be used in novel ways to benefit patients and the NHS.
Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, said: "Thanks to this initiative, we hope that greater access to anastrozole could enable more women to take risk-reducing steps if they'd like to, helping them live without fear of breast cancer."
Health Minister, Will Quince, said that he was "delighted" that another effective drug to help to prevent the "cruel" disease had now been approved.
Dr David Crosby, head of prevention and early detection at Cancer Research UK, said: "Approaches to help prevent breast cancer in women at high risk are badly needed, so this is a welcome announcement."
Baroness Delyth Morgan, chief executive at Breast Cancer Now, said: "The extension of anastrozole's licence to cover it being used as a risk-reducing treatment is a major step forward that will enable more eligible women with a significant family history of breast cancer, to reduce their chance of developing the disease."