Jacinda Ardern hails 'exciting phase' of cancer research as Pharmac funds three new drugs

The $40 million boost to Pharmac's funding has paid for three new medicines to be available for New Zealanders, including two cancer drugs. 

Health Minister David Clark announced on Monday that from December 1, Pharmac will fund the drug Alecensa that fights advanced non-small cell lung cancer, and breast cancer drug Kadcyla. 

A new treatment for multiple sclerosis (MS), Ocrevus, is also being funded, and access to respiratory disease treatment Esbriet is being widened, the minister said. 

"These new drugs will help around 420 people, including people living with advanced cancer."

Pharmac announced in August it was considering funding the new drugs, months after several protests and petitions called for more cancer drugs to be funded in New Zealand. 

Dr Clark said the newly-funded medicines will be paid for out of the $40 million extra funding the Government invested in the 2019 Budget over four years. 

"It is great to see that investment making a real difference in people's lives."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the new treatments will affect a "small number", but will "improve a number of patients' quality of life significantly, particularly those in the space of breast cancer and lung". 

Pointing to Pharmac funding the MS drug Ocrevus, Ardern said: "There are roughly 300 patients that will benefit from a drug being fully funded by Pharmac that affects MS sufferers. 

"I'm told that drug currently - which is a six-monthly treatment - comes at a cost of $40,000 per annum, and is now being fully funded by Pharmac."

Multiple Sclerosis New Zealand President Malcolm Rickerby said Pharmac's decision to fund Ocrevus came after more than two years of lobbying.

Around 4000 New Zealanders currently live with MS. 

Ardern said more drugs will now be considered for funding by Pharmac following the Government's recent $60 million boost. 

"We've put additional funding into Pharmac and they are now consulting on a range of potentially new drugs that will be funded as a result of that boost in funding."

The drug-buying agency is currently consulting on three more cancer drugs: Lynparza for ovarian cancer, Faslodex for breast cancer, and Venclexta for chronic lymphocytic leukaemia.

Lynparza, like Kadcyla, is one of the drugs that advocates asked Pharmac to fund. 

Rachel Brown, who founded the New Zealand Gynaecological Cancer Foundation, told MPs in August Pharmac's "refusal" to fund Lynparza was "deliberately causing the premature deaths of New Zealanders". 

The Health Minister acknowledges that medicines are "critical", but said they are "only one part of cancer care and control". 

He pointed to the Government's 10-year Cancer Action Plan, unveiled last month, which includes setting up a Cancer Control Agency to ensure consistent standards nationwide, and strengthening the focus on prevention and screening.

"Our plan is comprehensive and covers the full spectrum - from prevention and screening, to radiation treatment and palliative care." 

'Exciting phase' in cancer research

The Prime Minister was given a tour of the facilities at Auckland University on Monday and was shown the research labs exploring new innovation in the space of cancer research. 

"What's interesting to me is that there is a new period of research and development in the space of cancer care... the cancer drugs are being more and more highly targeted towards specific forms of cancer," she said. 

"That is both an exciting phase for researchers because it does mean more effective forms of cancer care, however for those who are developing these new drugs, it is more expensive, so this is a challenging environment.

"Some of the announcements today are a demonstration that the Pharmac model is delivering for those who need it most."

National's Michael Woodhouse said he's still waiting on the Government to step up on health, pointing to its handling of the measles outbreak, scrapped health targets, and "flatlining Pharmac funding".