ET Bureau Updated: Jan 07, 2020, 01.03 PM IST

NEW DELHI: Taking cue from the World Health Organisation’s revised list of essential medicines, popular biosimilars for cancer cure like bevacizumab or trastuzumab and treatments like immunotherapy may get incorporated in India’s revised National List of Essential Medicines (NLEM), thereby bringing a whole new set of oncology medicines and treatments under price control, said officials in the know.

An expert group on oncology, which is slated to meet on Tuesday, is contemplating adding these to the NLEM, one of the experts told ET.

The NLEM list is reviewed every 3 years to include or exclude drugs. “Experts on oncology from all over the country are gathering tomorrow to finalise the list on oncology drugs, therapies. There are new therapies on cancer with the potential to improve outcomes in those with advanced cancer and hence the updated essential medicines list may incorporate biosimilars, if there is a consensus,” said one of the officials, who is part of the expert committee.“There will also be a separate session on whether there is a need to include immunotherapies on the NLEM. The experts will actively discuss these new areas of treatment of cancer,” this official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity as the matter is still being finalised.

For India, the inclusion of new cancer therapies gain significance as data suggest that India loses 7,00,000 lives to cancer every year. Companies such as Biocon, Dr Reddy's, Cadila Healthcare and Reliance Lifesciences are some that are actively focusing on the biosimilars market.

The government’s effort to ensure that these new therapies should be available in adequate numbers, assured quality and regulated prices is in line with its move to cap trade margins on more drugs. Currently 57 anti-cancer drugs are on the NLEM. In addition, 42 non-scheduled anti-cancer medicines, which are not on the NLEM, were selected for price regulation last year by restricting trade margin on the selling price up to 30%.

The move seeking to curb profiteering on vital medicines has reduced prices of cancer drugs by 85%, covering 72 formulations and 355 brands like carfilzomib, erlotinab, pemetrexed, epirubicin and leuprolide acetate. The new therapies once shortlisted for the NLEM, according to the expert, would be put forth before various stakeholders in a meeting to be held in February.

The WHO included five cancer therapies to the new medicines list that are regarded as the best in terms of survival rates to treat melanoma, lung, blood and prostate cancers.

For example, two recently developed immunotherapies (nivolumab and pembrolizumab) have delivered up to 50% survival rates for advanced melanoma, a cancer that until recently was incurable. “We are reviewing the updated version of WHO’s essential medicine list, which has a strong focus on cancer.

Among various therapies, it also included 12 new medicines, diagnostic tests,” added the expert.

While releasing the new essential medicines and diagnostics list in July last year, WHO DG Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus had said: “The inclusion in this list of some of the newest and most advanced cancer drugs is a strong statement that everyone deserves access to these lifesaving medicines, not just those who can afford them.” As per the WHO, more than 150 countries use WHO’s essential medicine list to guide decisions about which medicines represent the best value for money based on evidence and health impact.