A campaign for state funding of a costly new drug for melanoma has been derailed by a "low priority" ranking at Pharmac.

The state drug funder's experts committees said yes to Keytruda - but only with low priority, because of "uncertainty" about its benefits and its "extremely high cost".

This means the drug, considered by some cancer specialists the greatest advance in melanoma treatment since chemotherapy was developed, is unlikely to receive state funding unless the supplier cuts the price of it or other drugs, or provides updates of clinical trial data showing greater effectiveness than the current data.

Keytruda is state funded in Australia and England.


The Government does not pay for any of the new treatments for melanoma that have become available over several years. It pays only for chemotherapy, which is widely considered of little benefit against inoperable, advanced melanoma.

New Zealand has one of the world's highest rates of melanoma and it is our fourth most commonly registered cause of cancer. Each year around 2300 new cases are diagnosed and the disease kills about 350 people.

Melanoma patient Leisa Renwick, 47, of Tauranga, who credits dabrafenib with saving her life and faces paying up to $300,000 for Keytruda for two years' treatment, said the committees' recommendations were a small step forward, but were disappointing when the only state-funded treatment "doesn't work".

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She has just started a petition to Parliament asking members to approve "extra funding to Pharmac so that the drug pembrolizumab [Keytruda] can be made available to all New Zealanders with advanced melanoma, regardless of socio-economic status".

She said in the Herald's cancer series last month that costly drugs like Keytruda had divided New Zealand and she was appalled.

"It seems to me in this country the rich people are able to get treatment and the poor people aren't. They are sent home with lots of pain-killing drugs. They are sent home to die. I think that's really wrong."


Bob Hill, 72, of Masterton, who received Keytruda at no charge on a clinical trial for nine months and who has had no sign of melanoma tumours since September last year, said he was "terribly disappointed" with the low-priority ranking.

"What's a person's life worth? People are going to die because of that decision."

Paul Smith, the New Zealand director of Keytruda supplier Merck Sharp and Dohme, said he was surprised at the low ranking because of the lack of funded alternatives.

He said Pharmac's statement that in the trial of Keytruda the majority of those treated with it "either had no change in tumour size or their tumours grew" was wrong; in fact 70 per cent had stabilisation or shrinkage of tumours.

Read the Herald's cancer series.