Calls to fund breakthrough melanoma drug

Last month Medsafe approved pembrolizumab's use in New Zealand (file)
Last month Medsafe approved pembrolizumab's use in New Zealand (file)

Doctors are calling for a new melanoma-fighting drug said to be "head and shoulders" above all others to be made available to Kiwis as soon as possible.

Pembrolizumab was approved in the US last year after achieving 70 percent reduction in tumour growth in trials, completely eliminating them in 10 percent of patients.

"Cancer cells have a natural defence against the immune system called PD-1, and what this drug does it turn off that defence system, which allows the immune cells to attack the cancer itself," Cancer Society medical director Dr Christopher Jackson said on the Paul Henry programme this morning.

"The side-effects are much fewer than you'd expect with standard chemotherapy."

Last month Medsafe approved its use in New Zealand, but without funding from Pharmac, a course of treatment will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"Pharmac don't actually have a fast-track evaluation process," says Dr Jackson. "There's no clear timeline for around how long Pharmac can take or will take around making a decision around that. That creates a great deal of uncertainty for patients."

With 11 Kiwis being diagnosed with melanoma every day and 300 dying a year, he says patients deserve to know if and when the breakthrough treatment will be available to those who can't afford it themselves.

"We currently have no effective funded therapies, and this is a massive area of unmet need... There are some other treatments available, but this is certainly one of the very best treatments that we have and in my view it's head and shoulders above the other treatments that are available."

Pharmac could not be reached for comment.

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