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5-ALA the ‘Pink Drink’ – What you need to know

There have been a number of headlines over the last two days about a ‘new treatment’ that may save thousands of lives for brain tumour patients

The reports refer to 5-ALA, otherwise known as the ‘pink drink’, which has been made available to patients across the NHS.

While we welcome the rollout of 5-ALA and have long campaigned for its use in all neurosurgery centres, it’s not accurate to describe it as a treatment or to claim it may save thousands of lives.

We’re aware of the confusion and distress this is causing for some of our community and more widely. We’ve tried to address the key issues below.

What is 5-ALA?

5-ALA, also known as the ‘pink drink’, is taken as a drink prior to surgery. It causes tumour cells to glow bright pink under UV light. This allows the surgeon to tell tumour cells apart from healthy cells, and so helps them remove more of the tumour while causing less damage to healthy tissue.

Is it a treatment?

Not in itself. It is best described as a ‘surgical aid’ because it helps surgeons to remove more of a tumour than they might be able to do otherwise.

Studies show that in 70.5% of cases when the pink drink is used, surgeons manage to remove the entire tumour – up from around 30% without the use of 5-ALA.

When more of a tumour is removed, less aggressive chemotherapy and radiotherapy is needed. As a result, there is less damage to healthy brain tissue from these treatments, and the overall effect is a longer survival time and more days feeling well.

Does 5-ALA save lives?

No. There is some evidence that those patients who receive 5-ALA will live for longer, but there is currently no known cure for glioblastoma.

Is 5-ALA suitable for everyone diagnosed with a brain tumour?

So far, it’s proven to be beneficial only for adults with high-grade gliomas.

However, you should always speak to your doctor about access as he or she will be best placed to know if this drink will be appropriate for you.

5-ALA is not available to children.

Where is it available?

It should now be available throughout the UK. Prior to Tessa Jowell’s campaigning it was already available in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and has now been made available in England and Wales.

If you discover it’s not available where you are being treated, try to ask why and contact us to let us know.

Find out more about 5-ALA