Melanoma patients are likely to get a second drug treatment option under a new proposal to provide state funding of Keytruda, and two Bay woman fighting the disease say it is great news.
Pharmac, the Government's drug funding agency, yesterday issued a consultation document proposing to pay for Keytruda from September 1.
This follows Pharmac's earlier decision to fund Keytruda' rival Opdivo from this Friday. Both are high-cost cancer drugs in a new class of immunotherapy medicines, called PD-1 inhibitors, which are extending the lives of some advanced-melanoma patients who have no other treatment options.
Pharmac says in the consultation notice on its website that it has "now reached a commercially favourable provisional agreement" with the maker of Keytruda (pembrolizumab), Merck Sharp and Dohme, and is seeking feedback on the proposal which also involves two other drugs.
"The proposal to fund pembrolizumab would result in a second PD-1 inhibitor being funded for patients with advanced melanoma.
"We are not aware of any evidence to support the use of pembrolizumab after nivolumab [Opdivo] treatment failure, or vice versa, but the two agents may have different side-effect profiles. Therefore, they may be useful alternatives to each other in patients who experience early treatment-limiting toxicity.
"Under the proposal, switching between the two funded PD-1 inhibitor treatments would be permitted within the first 12 weeks of starting funded treatment if the first treatment choice is not tolerated and the patient's cancer did not progress while on their first treatment."
Some patients have been paying up to $300,000 for two years' treatment with Keytruda. Some, who had been facing imminent death, have been told they are in remission on Keytruda.
Tauranga woman Leisa Renwick, who led the charge to take a petition to Parliament calling for them to fund a melanoma drug like Keytruda, welcomed the news.
Mrs Renwick, who had managed to pay for the drugs herself, said if it was funded it would mean she could remain on Keytruda.
"It's great news," she said.
The announcement would be welcomed by melanoma patients and all those who had helped in the drug-funding campaign.
"I didn't do it alone, a lot of people came on board," she said.
Tauranga woman Sarah Speight said she was surprised by the announcement so soon after the decision to fund Opdivo.
It's got to be a good thing.
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"It's great. I think any Pharmac decision that gives patients and their doctors more choices is great," she said.
It would mean patients already on Keytruda would not have to swap drugs at the end of their trial or when the money ran out, she said.
"It's got to be a good thing. It's great that Pharmac's got both companies to play ball."
Mrs Speight is on an Opdivo trial which was due to end in September but was relieved she could now continue to get the drug through Pharmac.
"I had a scan the other day and my tumours are still shrinking. I'm very fortunate," she said.
Pharmac's proposal to pay for Opdivo was announced last month as part of a $39 million boost for Pharmac's budget.
The agency then anticipated that about 350 patients a year would have Opdivo funded by it.
Keytruda and Opdivo are showing great promise in cancers other than melanoma.