4th April 2015 Andrew Ward, Pharmaceuticals Correspondent
Two of Britain’s best-known life-science investors are backing a £100m plan to build three proton-beam cancer treatment centres in the UK, a year before the National Health Service is scheduled to adopt the technology.
The scheme is led by Sir Chris Evans, a biotech entrepreneur, with support from Neil Woodford, the fund manager and long-time enthusiast for life sciences.
Clinics would be opened in Cardiff, London and Newcastle by 2017, offering proton-beam therapy — a highly targeted form of radiotherapy — to treat hard-to-reach cancers. The technology made headlines last year when five-year-old Ashya King was removed from hospital by his parents against medical advice and taken to Prague to have a brain tumour treated with proton beams. Last month, the couple said their son was free of cancer.
The case highlighted the absence of such technology in the UK and the growing demand from patients because of its potential to destroy cancer cells with less damage to surrounding tissue and organs than traditional radiotherapy.
Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, announced last month that proton-beam therapy would be introduced at centres in London and Manchester in 2018.
Sir Chris plans to have his company’s first clinic open in Cardiff as early as next year. He told the Financial Times that Proton Partners International had received commitments of almost £100m from investors, including Mr Woodford. Others include the Welsh Life Sciences Fund, set up by the Welsh government to support biotech investment in Wales and managed by Sir Chris. It will put in £10m.
Sir Chris predicted strong demand from private patients and “health tourists” travelling from countries without the technology, but said he wanted the clinics to be open to NHS patients as well.
The NHS spends tens of millions of pounds a year sending hundreds of patients for treatment at proton-beam centres overseas, mainly in the US, with costs often above £100,000 per person.
Proton Partners would be able to “save the NHS a lot of money” and spare patients and their families a trip abroad, said Sir Chris.
His plan could face obstacles depending on who wins next month’s general election. Ed Miliband announced plans this week to cap the profits available to private providers to the NHS.
Sir Chris, the son of a Port Talbot steelworker, who has lent money to the Labour party in the past, said Proton Partners would work with any government to find ways of making its treatment available to NHS patients.
“I love the NHS,” he said. “It is a fantastic British institution, but there is a limit to what it can do.
“They are going to end up with a lot of patients who will want proton-beam therapy and they will not be able to meet demand through their own centres.”
Sir Chris cited estimates that demand for proton-beam therapy in the NHS could reach 1,500 patients a year in the next two years, implying a cost of more than £170m from sending people overseas.
In the longer term, he said research suggested that 10 to 15 per cent of all cancer radiotherapy would involve the technique.
At current levels, that would mean at least 15,000 patients receiving the treatment. But Sir Chris said the figure would be higher because of rising incidence of cancer and potential use of proton-beam therapy in a wider range of cancers.
Proton Partners will be chaired by Gordon McVie, senior consultant at the European Institute of Oncology. The chief medical adviser will be Karol Sikora, former head of the World Health Organisation cancer programme.
Sir Chris made a fortune from founding and selling a series of biotech companies and now invests in the sector through his Arthurian fund management company.