NHS to deliver cancer drugs by drone

We are in the UK today, where the National Health Service (NHS) in England will be trying drone technology to bring chemotherapy drugs closer to patients, as announced by the organisation’s chief executive.

Describing the imminent drone deliveries as the latest extraordinary step in a year in which the health service has proved its commitment to emerging technologies, NHS chief executive Amanda Pritchard said the ground-breaking first flights were set to start in the coming weeks.

The medicine will be flown directly from the pharmacy at Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust in the south of England; across the Solent to St Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight, where staff will collect it before distributing it to hospital teams and patients.

All of this will be taking place on the same day, saving patients long round trips to and from their centres where they usually collected their doses from.

“Chemotherapy is difficult to transport as some doses have a short shelf life so the NHS has partnered with tech company Apian to come up with a new way of getting the treatment to patients in record time,” the NHS said in a statement.

“Drones will cut the usual delivery time from four hours to 30 minutes, saving fuel and money and making cancer care much more convenient for patients living on the Isle of Wight who often need to travel to the mainland for treatment at the moment.

“Each drone delivery replaces at least two car journeys and one hovercraft or ferry journey per delivery – saving carbon emissions and contributing to improving air quality for patients and the community.”

A healthcare technology start-up founded by two trainee doctors, Apian gained traction at the height of the Covid -19 pandemic when it worked with the NHS as part of the latter’s Clinical Entrepreneur Programme. It established a network of secure air corridors for drones to navigate using satellite-enabled GPS.

The start-up also installed take-off and landing infrastructure so its aircraft can take-off from and land onto hospitals, laboratories and warehouses.

Besides Apian, other parties to the trials comprise the Isle of Wight NHS Trust, Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust, Solent Transport, University of Southampton, King’s College London, Skylift, Modini, the Ministry of Defence and UKRI.

Should the Isle of Wight trials become successful, Northumbria would follow suit, as well as trials for other medical supplies, not just for chemotherapy treatment.

 “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,” Pritchard said.

“From a smartwatch to manage Parkinson’s to revolutionary prostate treatments and making the most expensive drug in the world available to NHS patients, it has been another amazing year of innovation in the way the health service delivers treatment and care.

“As the NHS turns 74 it is clear that the pace of change and improvement across the health service is only accelerating as our fantastic staff seek to make the most of life-changing advances to improve patients’ lives as we promised in the NHS Long Term Plan”.

Apian CEO, Alexander Trewby said; “My mother worked for the NHS in Portsmouth her entire life before she passed away from cancer three years ago.

“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 so that in the future, everyone’s mother will benefit from the delivery of faster, smarter and greener healthcare.”


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