Pharmac confirms funding for breast cancer drug Ibrance

Pharmac has confirmed it will fund a life-extending drug for thousands of New Zealanders suffering from advanced breast cancer.

Palbociclib - better known as Ibrance - is considered by clinical experts as having the ability to "stop or slow down the progression" of advanced (metastatic) breast cancer. While the drug currently costs around $6000 a month for patients, that would be slashed under an agreement with the drug's supplier, Pfizer.

A provisional agreement to fund the medicine for initial and secondary or subsequent treatment of the cancer was first announced in January, but consultation with health professionals and the public was required before funding could be officially confirmed. 

On Thursday, Sarah Fitt, chief executive of Pharmac - New Zealand's drug-buying agency - said feedback had been "overwhelmingly positive" and funding would occur from April. 

It's estimated 2000 Kiwis will be eligible for the first- and second-line treatment in the first year of the drug's funding. Up to 950 New Zealanders will become eligible over each subsequent year.

"First-line treatment is when a patient has not had any other treatment for that disease before. Second or subsequent line means the patient will have had one or more prior treatment to treat their disease," Pharmac says.

Funding for the second or subsequent line treatment wasn't included in the first application to the supplier. This came about after an application from the Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition (BCAC).

"We recognised the importance of previously-treated patients being able to receive treatment with palbociclib. We are pleased we were able to negotiate this extension to funding with Pfizer," said Fitt.

Libby Burgess, chair of the BCAC, called the funding fantastic news. 

"It's wonderful that Ibrance will be funded for New Zealand women who have already received other treatments for advanced hormone receptor positive, HER2 negative breast cancer, in addition to those newly diagnosed and about to start their first treatment.

"It's a hugely important medicine that halts or slows the progress of this type of cancer, giving women more quality time to live their lives."

In 2018, hundreds of women with advanced breast cancer (known as 'metavivors') marched on Parliament, calling for funding for Ibrance. Burgess said the original application for funding - that didn't include for second-line treatment - would have meant those metavivors would have been left out. 

"We're absolutely delighted that Pharmac has listened to the patient voice and looked at all the evidence to reach the decision to fund Ibrance for everyone."

The funding of Ibrance means that five new cancer drugs have been approved for funding this financial year. This includes Alecensa, Kadcyla, Venclexta, Lynparza and fulvestrant. 

"We work hard to negotiate some of the best prices for medicines in the world. We aim to give people access to clinically effective and innovative medicines at a price that is fair and affordable, which is in line with what the country's taxpayers expect us to do," said Fitt.

In September, the Government unveiled a major $60 million cash injection into Pharmac has part of its 10-year cancer plan. Its budget last year was $1 billion, but not just for cancer medicine.

The Government's cancer plan also included setting up a national cancer agency and developing cancer-specific quality-performance indicators. The Cancer Control Agency was opened in December.

If elected, National has promised to set aside $200 million for a fund dedicated to buying cancer drugs.

Some advocates have called for Pharmac's budget to be doubled.