A ‘life-transforming’ drug for severe bowel disease has won NHS backing after studies showed that patients given the twice-daily pill can go into complete remission after years of suffering.

Some of those who took part in trials got better even though they had failed to respond to all other treatments.

The £8,000-a-year medication has now won the support of the spending watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), which has approved the treatment for patients with moderate to severe ulcerative colitis.

The illness, caused by the immune system going haywire and attacking healthy bowel tissues, affects 146,000 Britons.

Many are young as the illness tends to strike between the ages of 15 and 25 and causes debilitating symptoms, ranging from recurrent diarrhoea to unplanned weight loss.

Consultant gastroenterologist Dr Barney Hawthorne, of University Hospital Wales in Cardiff, welcomed the development. ‘Ulcerative colitis is a rotten disease and one in ten patients ends up having the colon removed,’ he said.

‘Other strong drugs we use are given by injection of intravenous drip, and patients can become resistant to them, so they no longer work. There is less chance of this happening with the new medication, and as it’s a tablet, patients can take it at home, which is far more convenient.’

Current drug treatments for ulcerative colitis include steroids that dampen down inflammation and others that try to turn down the immune system’s response.

These can be very effective, but some sufferers still end up needing surgery to have part of the damaged colon removed.

The new pill, called tofacitinib, taken twice daily for eight weeks, then at a lower ‘maintenance’ dosage, could offer these patients hope.

Shirley Leather, 46, from Sussex, has seen her quality of life change beyond recognition since being put on tofacitinib in a trial in 2014.

The mother-of-two, a warehouse manager, had suffered with ulcerative colitis for a decade. The condition struck in 2004, shortly after the birth of her first child. She blamed the diarrhoea and passing of blood on ‘part of the process of pregnancy’. But at her six-week check-up her GP realised something was wrong and referred her to a specialist. Shirley was told she had ulcerative colitis.

Oral steroids helped at first, but her weight ballooned and her self-esteem plummeted.

‘At my worst I would go to the toilet 27 times a day,’ she says. ‘The fatigue was overwhelming. Most days I would have to sleep in the afternoon, trying to make my two young children understand that Mummy needed to sleep and that they must play quietly.

‘By the time I was offered this trial, I was at my very lowest and desperate to find anything that could give me back some sort of quality of life.’

Tofacitinib is a type of drug called a Janus kinase inhibitor, or Jakinib. Janus kinases are enzymes that help to activate the immune response. By blocking the effect of the enzymes, the drug stops the immune system destroying healthy tissue.

It can have side-effects – including chest infections, headaches and diarrhoea – but Sarah Berry, from Crohn’s and Colitis UK, a charity which pressed NICE to back the drug, said: ‘This drug offers a huge amount of hope.’

Tofacitinib is expected to be available on the NHS in England and Wales from early next year. A decision in Scotland is due in February.

Shirley says: ‘Life has been a rollercoaster with ulcerative colitis. But I can honestly say this drug has totally changed my life. I have been in remission for over three years and feel like a completely new person.’

l crohnsandcolitis.org.uk