Cancer patients try untested drugs in Britain

LONDON (AP) – When Jill Bracey Cowley was diagnosed with bone marrow cancer eight years ago, doctors told her she had two years to live. So she decided to take a gamble and try new drugs that hadn’t yet been approved.

“They’ve utterly changed my life,” said Cowley, 70, who credits the treatments with enabling her to live long enough to welcome six grandchildren into the world.

Unlike most terminally ill cancer patients, Cowley had the chance to try untested drugs. With the opening of a government-run network of experimental cancer clinics across the country this month, British doctors are hoping to offer millions of dying cancer patients the same chance.

The network builds on cancer research centers first established in 2002 to bring laboratory advances quickly to patients. Each center will receive $4 million from the Department of Health and Cancer Research United Kingdom to develop new treatments.

Under the government-supported trials, Cowley has tried at least four experimental medicines for free. Her doctors aren’t sure which ones have had the most impact but say her situation is stable.

In the United States, cancer patients can also sign up for experimental treatment, but there is no official national effort to help patients enroll. Most trials are run in academic centers, while 80 percent of cancer patients are treated in community hospitals. The American Cancer Society offers a matching service to line up suitable experimental trials for cancer patients, but success rates vary.

There is also a government-run Web site that attempts to provide trial listings for all diseases. According to a 2005 report, 20 percent of cancer patients in the U.S. are eligible to participate in drug studies, but only about 3 percent enroll.

In Britain, there are now 19 centers where terminally ill patients can apply to try untested drugs. While clinics in France, the Netherlands and Italy offer cancer patients experimental treatments, no other European country has such a national network.