Lifesaving cancer drugs held up by the system

Australians with melanoma, our most deadly cancer, have reason to celebrate today with the inclusion of a revolutionary new drug under the PBS. The treatment, which previously cost $150,000 per year will now be available for $37.70 per prescription and just $6.10 for concession card holders.

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Professor Grant McArthur from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre says Keytruda is a revolutionary treatment.

“Keytruda is the most remarkable drug I’ve dealt with in my career,” he told reporters.

However, the manufacturers of the drug have hit out at Australia’s policy on new medications, saying old systems are blocking people from life-saving medical advances.

Ken Frazier, global chief executive of Merck, the company that developed Keytruda, told The Australian Financial Review, “If you look at a basket of drugs available in Australia – composed of drugs that are off-patent and drugs that are new, innovative drugs – I think you would find compared with the US, Australia vastly overpays for older commodity drugs. That creates a budgetary squeeze when it comes to new drugs [such as] Keytruda.”

Keytruda and similar immunotherapy drugs being used to trigger the immune system to fight cancer. They are being described as the most important medical discovery since penicillin.

Mr Frazier said the Australian government was paying too much for older drugs, which made it difficult to introduce new medicines such as this new melanoma drug.

He also pointed out that, according to an OECD report, Australia ranked 18 out of 20 developed countries for access to new medicines.

Keytruda will be available on the PBS from September 1 and only for melanoma patients, although it has been used elsewhere to treat lung cancer.

Federal health minister Sussan Ley says the government, which is investing $57 million to subsidise Keytruda, will likely increase funding in the coming years given Australia’s high cancer rates.

AFR research found four out of five people rated healthcare as the most important issue for voters, but only 2 per cent could describe the federal government’s performance in this area as “very good”.

Former Melbourne lord mayor Ron Walker, who accessed the drug from the United States under a test scheme, said the treatment saved his life.

“I was a walking person that was going to die, and with this drug I came back to life again within a year, so it’s [had] an amazing effect on me and it’s having the same effect on others,” he told the ABC.

“It’s an amazing drug, it’s a huge step forward and I think that most countries around the world would be applauding what the Australian Government’s done for patients.

Tell us, do you think the government should spend more time and money improving access to medicines, including cutting-edge cancer treatments? DO you have a story to share about affordability of medicines?