Breakthrough cancer drug will improve patients’ lives

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The listing of a new drug on the Australian Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) will improve the lives of patients who have advanced melanoma, according to Murray Valley Private Hospital oncologist Dr Christopher Steer.

Last month Federal Health Minister Sussan Ley announced Keytruda – also known as Pembrolizumab – will be available on the PBS from 1 September.

The ‘revolutionary’ melanoma drug previously cost $150,000 a year, but a $57 million investment by the Federal Government means patients will only pay about $38.

Dr Steer, who has met with company representatives of Keytruda on two occasions, said research clearly showed the benefits of using the immune-based therapy drug opposed to traditional chemotherapy drugs.

“In clinical trials it has doubled the number of people alive at the end of one year in comparison to those who have been on chemotherapy as a treatment.

“In a clinical trial of patients given the drug, the number of patients alive at the end of one year was 70 per cent in comparison with chemotherapy where the number of people you would expect to be alive at one year would be 30 per cent.”

Dr Steer has had some success using Keytruda on a patient with non-small-cell lung cancer, but he said it was too early to comment on the extent of its benefits.

However, the use of a “sister” drug to treat a melanoma patient had led to critical improvements and Dr Steer said Keytruda would “no doubt” have the same effects.

“[The patient] had awful pain from the cancer spot eroding on his bones. We started the Nivolumab and within four weeks the pain had gone away and the scans had shown the tumour had shrunk.”

The patient has enjoyed an enhanced quality of life since the treatment.

“He has come off his morphine-like painkillers and, unlike chemotherapy, has had virtually no side effects from the treatment, so the story is a good one.”

Dr Steer stressed the need to remember that the drug’s use was in its early stages and its success rate would vary from patient to patient.

“There are of course people who do not respond to these agents and further research is need as to why that is and how we can improve treatment,” he said.

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