The new drug, Keytruda, hailed as a historic step forward in the treatment of advanced melanoma, has been given only a low priority for taxpayer funding.

This will come as a blow to melanoma patients, some of whom are paying up to $300,000 to receive the drug, also called pembrolizumab, for two years. It is state-funded in Australia and England.

A spokesman for the Government's medicines-funding agency, Pharmac, said its clinical committees had reviewed the evidence and recommended that Keytruda have a low priority for funding.

He said that even though the committees considered it to be a drug with promise, there was uncertainty over the magnitude and durability of the benefits it provided for patients.

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When asked if Pharmac ever gives funding approval to drugs in the low-priority category, he said it did and this tended to be when it made a deal with a supplier over a group of drugs.

"We are going to keep talking with the company [Keytruda supplier Merck, Sharp and Dohme] on ways in which we might fund it."