Cancer Society welcomes new melanoma drug Opdivo


The Government's drug funding agency Pharmac says it will now fund a drug to fight advanced melanoma.

It follows a long and intense campaign for public funding of the immunotherapy drug Keytruda -- but Pharmac has actually chosen Keytruda's rival. 

So what is Opdivo? Is it as good as the so-called wonder drug Keytruda, and what do oncologists and melanoma patients think?

Leisa Renwick has just had her latest immunotherapy treatment at Auckland's Mercy Hospital.

She is an example of what an impact these drugs can have on melanoma patients.

"Well, without them I'd be dead, it's as plain as that," Ms Renwick says.

"Without the immunotherapy and the gene therapy drugs I wouldn't be here so it's huge."

Ms Renwick has been campaigning for other melanoma sufferers to get the same access.

She is on Keytruda. Opdivo is its rival equivalent and was granted Medsafe approval last week.

The Cancer Society is welcoming the announcement.

Medical Director and oncologist Chris Jackson says it doesn't matter which treatment is funded -- both can shrink tumours dramatically.

"Most clinicians would regard these two drugs as virtually identical," he says.

"Chemically, they're very similar and there's very little [difference] between the two."

Pharmac says Opdivo is better than Keytruda, not least because the drugmaker offered a better deal.

So how do they work?

Immunotherapy treatments use the body's own immune system to fight cancer by activating immune cells and enabling them to recognise the cancer cells they need to attack.

It's given Ms Renwick an extra year of life so far. She now needs to face switching from Keytruda to Opdivo, but trusts her doctors.

"Of course it does make me a little nervous, but I've put my faith in their advice so far so I guess I'll just keep following it through," she says.

One oncologist has said it's a bit like choosing between Pepsi and Coke.

The consultation period is underway and it could be available to patients within two months; for a number of sufferers, that can't come soon enough.