Hundreds of Kiwis battling leukaemia cancer have been given hope, with Pharmac today announcing funding for a new drug.

For Rosemary Blackbourn, who was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL) 10 years ago, it's "music to her ears".

The Auckland grandmother has been part of the New Zealand clinical trial for the drug venetoclax during the last six years and has seen "life-changing" results.

"I don't think I'd still be here today if it wasn't for that drug, I am extremely lucky."


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At 69, Blackbourn was working as a radiographer for Breast Screening New Zealand when she started getting symptoms and discovered she had CLL.

Her doctor said she had about eight years to live.

"It was a complete shock and the hardest part was I had to wait one year to start chemotherapy as it could potential do more harm than good."

Blackbourn had six rounds of chemotherapy which she described at "gruelling" and "awful".

"It sucked the life out of me."

Though the chemotherapy worked, her symptoms returned a few years later. It was then she was accepted on to the groundbreaking venetoclax trial.

"For a long time chemo has been the only treatment available to CLL patients so being a part of something new that gave hope was very exciting."


CLL is the most common form of leukaemia in New Zealand, with around 120 people diagnosed annually.

The new drug - sold under the trade names Venclexta and Venclyxto and being funded by Pharmac from December 1 - is an oral tablet and means patients may not have to go through the side effects of chemotherapy and do not have to travel into hospital.

The results from the trial showed 80 per cent of participants improved and 20 per cent went into complete remission.

Pharmac expects around 150 people will benefit from treatment with venetoclax in the first year of funding it, increasing to 230 Kiwis by the end of the second year.

Dr Robert Weinkove, who works as a clinical director at the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research, described the drug as a "big step forward".

"Myself and colleagues across the country use this drug in clinical trials and there are some people who have been purchasing it themselves for various conditions.

"It's a really promising drug that has proven utility in this leukaemia."

But the treatment came at a big expense: Weinkove put the cost at thousands of dollars each month – or even hundreds of dollars each day.

"I would like to see it become available to a greater number of patients, but this announcement targets that group that is at the greatest clinical need right now."

Weinkove hoped the treatment and similar medicines might ultimately replace the need for chemotherapy altogether in CLL patients.

Pharmac's acting medical director Dr Ken Clark said the agency already funded other medicines for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, including bendamustine and obinutuzumab.

"Funding venetoclax means patients whose chronic lymphocytic leukaemia has relapsed have another option for treatment."

Blackbourn's son Ben Hart said he remembers his mum saying she just wanted another 10 years of life to watch her grandchildren grow up.

Now, not only has she lived 10 extra years, which has meant she was able to see her only daughter get married and the birth of more grandchildren, but she's stayed alive to witness others be given the same hope.

About chronic lymphocytic leukaemia (CLL):

• It's the most common type of leukaemia (blood cancer) with 120 Kiwis diagnosed a year.

• CLL is a slow-growing leukaemia that affects a type of white blood cell, which under normal conditions produce antibodies that help protect our bodies against infection and disease.

• Those who do develop signs and symptoms may experience enlarged lymph nodes, fatigue, fever, night sweats, weight loss and frequent infections.

• Although diagnosed on occasion in adults aged 35-55 years, CLL usually affects people over 60 years of age, and is diagnosed more often in men than women.

• To date, traditional forms of therapy have included chemotherapy, corticosteroid therapy, immunotherapy, radiotherapy and stem cell transplants.

• The new drug is an oral tablet and means patients may not have to go through the side effects of chemotherapy.