Severely-ill patients will soon have access to new medicines years before they are given the green light for widespread use.

Researchers can now apply for medicines to be fast-tracked for patients through the Early Access to Medicines Scheme.

The idea behind the initiative is to help patients with life-threatening or seriously debilitating conditions who have no other treatment options available to them.

The new drugs will be made available as soon as the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, an executive agency of the Department of Health, signals that the benefits outweigh the risks following an initial scientific assessment.

This means a number of drugs could be given to patients years before they are fully licensed.

Dr Ian Hudson, chief executive of the MHRA, said: “This is a significant step forward for the earlier availability of medicines in the UK and we look forward to receiving applications to the scheme.

“The launch of this scheme will mean that the MHRA issues an opinion that supports prescribers in deciding to use an unlicensed medicine for conditions where there are no or inadequate treatment options available to them.

“This scientific opinion will follow after a review of the data submitted by the applicant to the scheme and will describe the benefits and risks of the medicine.”