Lockerbie bomber lived three more years helped by cancer drug denied to NHS patients

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie airline bomber (in wheelchair) in Tripoli Central Hospital - SABRI ELMHEDWI/EPA
Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie airline bomber (in wheelchair) in Tripoli Central Hospital - SABRI ELMHEDWI/EPA

A British cancer drug denied to NHS patients at the time helped the Lockerbie bomber live for three more years after he was released on compassionate grounds, a new book has claimed.

Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, the only man convicted of the 1988 bombing of American PanAm flight 103 which killed 270 people, was released in 2009 after being given just three months to live with prostate cancer.

Professor Karol Sikora, one of the oncologists consulted about al-Megrahi’s prospects, said he had made his prognosis based on the standard of care that the bomber received in a Scottish prison.

Yet on his release, al-Megrahi was given access to abiraterone, a hormone-therapy drug discovered by researchers at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in Britain, and funded by Cancer Research UK through charitable donations.

In his first detailed description of the events leading up to al-Megrahi’s release, Prof Sikora said that he had been visited by a ‘shadowy but charming fixer’ acting for the Libyans, and later ‘had tea’ with Saif Gadaffi, the son of President Muammar Gaddafi at the Intercontinental Hotel in London’s Park Lane.

At the time, conspiracy theories suggested that Prof Sikora may have been duped by the Libyans by being asked to examine the wrong patient, or given false X-rays or blood tests.

Convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi (centre) escorted by security officers in 1992 - MANOOCHER DEGHATI/AFP
Convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi (centre) escorted by security officers in 1992 - MANOOCHER DEGHATI/AFP

But writing in his new book Cancer: The Key to Getting the Best Care - Making the System Work For You, he said: “I don’t believe any of this. Mr al-Megrahi had excellent care in Tripoli, until the tumultuous events that led to the end of the Gadaffi regime.

“Although it was unexpected that he would live for three years he was treated very aggressively with new drugs. His quality of life in Tripoli was very poor and he was in bed most of his last year of life.

“Ironically, he was treated with abiraterone. This drug was discovered in Britain using Cancer Research UK charitable funding. It was given its licence by the European Medicines Agency in September 2011 and was not available to most patients on the NHS until 2018.

“Megrahi was also on a range of other therapies not available here.”

State-of-the-art treatment

The bomber died in May 2012, but abiraterone was not available on the cancer drugs fund for another two years, and has not been widely available on the health service until just five years ago.

Professor Sikora, said the al-Megrahi episode had taught him to be ‘even more cautious than before’ at writing off cancer patients, but said he still believed the Libyan would have died within just a few months had he not received state-of-the-art treatment.

Prof Sikora, who was working as an oncologist at Hammersmith Hospital in London, at the time, told the Telegraph: “Megrahi would have died as predicted in three months.

“He wasn’t given anything  - no chemo as he was a security risk if he went to the hospital and they said they couldn’t give him the drug in prison.

“Yes the abiraterone prolonged his life and although a British drug, you couldn’t get it on the NHS until 5 years later.”

Unlike drugs that were available on the NHS, abiraterone blocks the production of testosterone, which can slow cancer growth. Al-Megrahi’s family are believed to have imported the drug from the US.

Prof Sikora said he had visited Greenock Prison in July 2009 and examined al-Megrahi, as well as reviewing his X-rays and notes. He said that based on the rapid spread and progression of his cancer he came to the prognosis that the bomber had just three months left to live.

Released on compassionate grounds

He submitted the report to the Libyan embassy, although after al-Megrahi’s release the Scottish Office claimed it had arrived too late to be taken into consideration, and had played no part in the decision to release the bomber.

Al-Megrahi was freed from Greenock Prison on Aug 29 2009, after Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, ruled he should be released on compassionate grounds, a decision branded ‘a mistake’ by Barack Obama, the then US President.

The decision sparked an inquiry by the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee which later ruled that it had been inappropriate for Mr MacAskill to visit al-Megrahi in prison but said the release was correct.

The bomber eventually died on May 20 2012 at his home in the Libyan capital Tripoli.

Writing in the new book, Prof Sikora said: “The sad episode of the Lockerbie Bomber has taught me to be even more cautious than before – unusually good things can happen to cancer patients.

“In an age of molecular reductionism with magic bullets and personalised medicine with smart drugs, there are many things we still don’t understand. We remove hope at our peril.”