Cancer patients in the UK will be the first ones in the world to benefit from chemotherapy drugs delivered by drones. The drugs will be transported from Portsmouth to a hospital on the Isle of Wight as part of a pilot scheme by the NHS – if it goes well, it could lead to “same-day delivery” across the country, the government said.
The Isle of Wight is located two miles off the south coast of England with a population under 150,000. As most chemotherapy drugs have a short shelf-life, they are either rushed to the island or patients take the two-hour ferry to the mainland — plus a drive to the ferry. In comparison, a drone flight from Portsmouth, the closest mainland city, would take just half an hour.
There are around 375,000 new cancer cases in the UK every year, according to Cancer Research UK. That’s around 1,000 every day. Breast, prostate, lung, and bowel cancers account for over half of new cases. Incidence rates for all cancers combined are highest in people between 85 and 89 years old, with a third of cases diagnosed in people over 75.
“Delivering chemo by drone is another extraordinary development for cancer patients and shows how the NHS will stop at nothing to ensure people get the treatment they need as promptly as possible, while also cutting costs and carbon emissions,” Amanda Pritchard, NHS England’s chief executive, said at an event to present the project.
Drones and chemotherapy drugs
The drugs will be collected from the Queen Alexandra hospital in Portsmouth and then flown to the St Mary’s hospital on the Isle of Wight, where staff will collect and distribute them. The trial is part of a collaboration between the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and Apian, a medical drone startup founded by former NHS doctors.
The first drone deliveries will begin “shortly,” the NHS said in a statement, subject to the outcome of a series of test flights. The drones weigh 85 kilograms, have a wingspan of five meters, and can carry up to 20 kilograms. A second trial of the drones in the region of Northumbria in northern England is expected to follow the initial Isle of Wight trial.
Darren Cattell, the chief executive of the Isle of Wight NHS Trust, said we are still at “relatively early stages” of drone usage in healthcare, but stressed drones could have “radical and positive implications” for patients. Meanwhile, UK health secretary Sajid Javid said patients will have “quicker and fairer” access to treatment “no matter where they live.”
This isn’t the first-time drones are used to deliver vital medicines faster than conventional ways. Drone company Volansi started testing the delivery of cold-chain medicines in rural North Carolina, while in Rwanda drone technology has helped transport blood supplies across the country, especially in rural and mountainous areas.
The UK’s Royal Mail has also been testing the use of delivery drones to get packages to remote areas – including sending vital supplies to the islands of Orkney, Shetland and the Hebrides. Similar to the NHS trial, Royal Mail said the use of drones would bring down greenhouse gas emissions and also accelerate delivery times.
“This project marks a very important first step in the construction of a network of drone corridors connecting hospitals, pathology labs, GP surgeries, care homes and pharmacies up and down the country,” Apian CEO, Alexander Trewby, said in a statement. “In the future, everyone will benefit from faster, smarter and greener healthcare.”