People suffering from serious illnesses including cancer and dementia will be able to try new medicines years earlier thanks to a new scheme, the health secretary has announced.

Jeremy Hunt published details of a “fast track” plan to get drugs into the NHS before they have even been granted a licence for use.

Paid for by the pharmaceutical industry, the scheme means experts will carry out a rapid assessment of a drug before labelling it a “promising innovative medicine”.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will offer a scientific opinion based on a medicine’s risks and benefits and, if the benefits outweigh the risks, doctors will be given the go-ahead to use the drug.

Mr Hunt said the new early access scheme was both a boost for industry and for patients.

He said: “Making Britain the best place in the world for science, research and development is a central part of our long-term economic plan.

“This ground-breaking scheme will provide cutting edge medicines earlier, give hope to patients and their families and save lives. And as part of our strategy for life sciences it will create more jobs and opportunities for people, helping secure a better future for our country.”

The plan means medicines will be given to patients before a licence has been granted and before any assessment has been carried out by Nice.

Once a drug has been fully licensed for use, it will come out of the early access scheme and be assessed by Nice in the usual way.

Under the plan, pharmaceutical firms will be able to “gain experience” of how their medicines are being used in the NHS, the Department of Health said.

It said firms would also “work closely with regulators to look at the value of the drugs, gaining guidance and advice much earlier in the regulatory process”.

The hope is that firms will invest more in the UK due to increased confidence they can introduce drugs more quickly.

Harpal Kumar, chief executive of Cancer Research UK, said: “Time is of the essence for many cancer patients, particularly those with more advanced disease. It can mean the difference between life and death.

“Therefore this scheme, which has at its heart the potential to bring promising new medicines to patients faster, is to be warmly welcomed.

“The scheme should also make it more attractive for life sciences companies to conduct their development activities in the UK, which will bring a multitude of benefits to the population.”

A bank of almost 75,000 medical research volunteers has also been launched to make it easier for researchers to recruit people with illnesses into research and clinical trials.

This BioResource project will focus on heart disease, dementia, infections and rare diseases with the intention of speeding up the development of new treatments.