Drugs watchdog in human rights claim

The NHS drugs watchdog has been accused of breaching a UN convention on children’s rights in a hearing that could pave the way for more high-priced medicines to become available in Britain.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) decided this year not to recommend a treatment for neuroblastoma in children, a cancer that affects nerve cells. Fewer than 100 children are diagnosed each year.

In an appeal brought by the charity Solving Kids’ Cancer, lawyers from the American firm Covington & Burling invoked the UN Convention on the rights of the child, which they say Nice’s ruling infringes. It is believed to be the first time the convention has been cited when appealing against a decision by the watchdog. Nice has accepted there are grounds for a review of the decision.

The treatment, called dinutuximab, is available in America, Australia and Canada. It is available in Britain but only in two clinical trials, which end soon. After that, it will be available only abroad at a cost of £500,000.

If the appeal is upheld, it is believed it could be used as a precedent for more high-cost drugs that treat extremely rare diseases to become available on the NHS.

Nice must balance promising and potentially lifesaving new medicines with their cost to the NHS. Jeremy Hunt, the health secretary, is attempting to make £22bn in efficiency savings by 2020.