Melanoma patients are likely to get a second drug treatment option under a new proposal to provide state funding of Keytruda.
Pharmac, the Government's drug funding agency, has today 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.
A petition seeking state-funding of Keytruda and signed by around 11,000 people was presented to Parliament in March.
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 around 350 patients a year would have Opdivo funded by it.
Keytruda and Opdivo are showing great promise in a range of cancers other than melanoma.