New melanoma drug 'very effective'

  • 07/09/2015
New melanoma drug 'very effective'

By Lucy Warhurst

A revolutionary new drug to treat melanoma has been approved for use in New Zealand.

It has shown promising results for skin cancer patients around the world, but for most sufferers in New Zealand it remains out of reach.

Simon Craigie says he feels blessed to be able to work and get on with life. He's had several treatments for skin cancer, but since he started using a new type of immunotherapy drug in February, his worst tumour has shrunk by two thirds.

"I've got stability of disease," he says. "It's put the handbrake on. It's reduced the target tumour quite dramatically and no side-effects."

Skin cancer kills 300 Kiwis a year. But Keytruda, also known as pembrolizumab, helps the body's own immune system to fight back.

Oncologist Christopher Jackson says it's the biggest breakthrough in melanoma in 35 years.

"They're very effective in the majority of people, not everyone, but they can shrink the tumour in front of your eyes, literally," says Dr Jackson.

New Zealand and Australia have the highest rates of skin cancer in the world. In Australia, the new drug is already available on the public health system. It's now been approved for use here, but it hasn't got funding.

Angela White says that's concerning. She lost her dad when he was just 37, as well as an aunt and uncle.

"I hope it works, and I hope it gets funding because we don't want to lose any more of our family," she says. "I don't want to go."

At around $10,000 per patient every three weeks, it's expensive. But Dr Jackson says it could save lives.

"This drug certainly does make people live longer, and for some people their cancer goes into complete remission and stays in remission for a very, very long time."

While Pharmac says it's yet to review the evidence of Keytruda's success let alone consider the cost, specialists and patients and their families are pinning their hopes on the Government agency.

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