Hundreds of thousands of women in England and Wales with a family history of breast cancer could be given drugs to prevent the disease.

UK health watchdog, the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), has recommended the NHS to offer tamoxifen, antagonist of the estrogen receptor first discovered by AstraZeneca, or raloxifene, an oral selective estrogen receptor modulator marketed as Evista by Eli Lilly.

NICE says that a daily dose of these drugs over five years can cut the risk of patients getting cancer by 40%.

The updated guideline also says MRI screening should be offered every year to all women aged 30 to 49 years who have, or have had, breast cancer and who remain at high risk of the disease.

Breakthrough Breast Cancer assistant head of policy and GDG member Dr Caitlin Palframan said the guidelines were a ‘game-changer’ in the way breast cancer is prevented.

Until now women considered to be of moderate or high-risk have been offered annual screening to pick up tumours early, or have opted to undergo surgery to remove their breasts.

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"It is so important that people have an array of options available to them to assess and manage their own breast cancer risk."

"It is so important that people have an array of options available to them to assess and manage their own breast cancer risk," said Palframan. "And for those at highest risk, which we must remember is a relatively small number of people in the population, it is equally vital that their options go beyond screening or surgery; through the use of preventative medicine, these new guidelines will help achieve this."

NICE also recommends testing otherwise ‘healthy people’ if it is likely they have a genetic mutation and have no living relative with cancer who could be tested instead.

Faulty BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes can cause cancer and can be passed down through families.

NICE director of the Centre for Clinical Practice professor Mark Baker said: "Our updated guideline now gives women more options in how they manage their risk of breast cancer.

"Although neither drug is licensed as a preventative treatment in the UK, clinical evidence shows they are an effective option for many women and could be preferable to surgery."

Image: Tamoxifen is marketed as Nolvadex by AstraZeneca. Photo: courtesy of Editor182.