Pharmac opens door to funding Keytruda in 'biggest step forward in treatment of lung cancer'

Keytruda has been called a 'miracle' drug, and there's a glimmer of hope now for those wanting it funded to treat our deadliest cancer.

Advocates say it's the biggest step forward in the treatment of lung cancer in New Zealand.

Last year, New Zealanders fighting for their lives lay on the forecourt of Parliament fighting for better cancer care from our drug buying agency.

And on Wednesday there was a gigantic step towards improving the treatment of lung cancer, our biggest cancer killer.

"This is a proposal we've wanted to do for some time," said Pharmac chief executive Sarah Fitt. "We originally wanted to do it in 2020."

Philip Hope, the Lung Foundation's chief executive, said it is "the biggest step forward in the treatment of lung cancer in New Zealand on record". 

Pharmac got a $191 million Budget boost so says it can now afford better lung cancer treatments.

It's asked drug companies to pitch drugs called immune checkpoint inhibitors and among them is the so-called miracle drug Keytruda.

"We want to ensure that we are funding the best treatment and we may end up funding more than one medicine," said Fitt.

Hope said that pembrolizumab, which has the brand name Keytruda, "doubles the survival rate of lung cancers".

Lung cancer is the single biggest contributor to the difference in life expectancy between Māori and non-Māori.

Advocates say Keytruda being funded to treat melanoma but not lung cancer is further proof of Pharmac contributing to those health inequities.

"Pharmac's been served a 'get your A into G' as a result of the review," said patient advocate Malcolm Mulholland.

"If we're guided by Māori, if we're guided by equity, if we save one Māori a day, we would also save four non-Māori," said Hope.

Newshub can reveal a report commissioned by the Pharmac review panel found the drug agency was generally good at saying things that sound like a commitment to equity and Te Tiriti but those commitments are not matched with action, and its lack of urgency on equity priorities was a "manifestation of institutional racism".

"Today is a really good example of where we are really committed to progressing some of these equity issues," said Fitt.

Lung cancer immunotherapies to ease inequities are now likely a long 10-month wait away.