Pharmac poised to fund melanoma drug Keytruda subject to feedback
Patients and politicians who lobbied hard for the melanoma drug Keytruda to be publicly funded may be about to have their wish fulfilled.
The Government's drug funding agency Pharmac, which recently announced a decision to fund the alternative drug nivolumab (Opdivo) for patients with advanced melanoma from next month, has announced a provisional deal with the maker of Keytruda.
In a statement on its website it said it had "reached a commercially favourable provisional agreement with Merck Sharpe and Dohme (MSD)... for the supply of pembrolizumab (Keytruda)" and was seeking feedback on a proposal to fund it "for patients with advanced melanoma, subject to Special Authority criteria".
Keytruda has been at the centre of a highly-emotive public campaign for Government funds, fought by patients, the Labour Party and the drug's maker that saw a petition taken to Parliament in March calling for its funding. Some patients have been privately funding Keytruda at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a two year course.
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But the decision to fund Opdivo was taken instead after the Government announced an extra $50m for the drug-purchaser in the May Budget.
Labour health spokeswoman Annette King said the decision on Keytruda was "cynical manipulation by the Government" of vulnerable people and "bloody poor politics all about not making the prime minister and (Health Minister) Jonathan Coleman look bad".
Cancer specialists had said Keytruda and Opdivo were similar. She felt sorry for vulnerable patients who had lobbied for Keytruda but were "slapped down".
Coleman declined to comment on Pharmac's move.
If Keytruda is approved for funding by Pharmac that will start from September but that is subject to feedback from the public and clinicians and final sign-off by the Pharmac board.
Submissions will be open till July 11.
Pharmac chief executive Steffan Crausaz said at the time of Pharmac's increased funding that Opdivo's data was better.
"We've taken the data package for Opdivo through our clinical cancer experts, and they've advised us that the clinical data is of good quality, well-structured and gives greater confidence that there is a survival gain for patients that receive it," he said.
"So to give you an idea of what that looks like, of patients who had received Opdivo, 73 per cent of them were alive at one year, compared with 42 per cent of people who received the current treatment that's available."
Crausaz would not comment on pricing for Opdivo however, saying the information was commercially sensitive.
Pharmac on Tuesday said it was not aware of any evidence to support the use of pembrolizumab after nivolumab [Opdivo] treatment failure, or vice versa, but the two agents may have different side effect profiles, so they may be useful alternatives to each other in patients who experience early treatment-limiting toxicity.
"Under the proposal switching between the two funded PD-1 inhibitor treatments would be permitted within the first 12 weeks of starting funded treatment if the first treatment choice is not tolerated and the patient's cancer did not progress while on their first treatment."