Two key cancer drugs are about to get much cheaper. Picture: iStock
Two key cancer drugs are about to get much cheaper. Picture: iStock

Cancer drug's incredible $150k price drop

THE government has decided to subsidise two key cancer drugs through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), saving patients up to $150,000 a year.

Tomorrow night's budget will include $81.5 million to add Bavencio, otherwise known as avelumab, to the PBS for the first time.

Bavencio is used to treat metastatic Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare but highly aggressive type of skin cancer. It's the second most common cause of skin cancer death after melanoma, and the incidence of it among Australians is rising.

Those with a high level of sun exposure are most at risk, particularly when they're above the age of 75.

The immunotherapy medicine aims to help the patient's own immune system attack and destroy cancer sells. The government says it could save and prolong the lives of around 160 people each year.

And until now, it has been out of reach for many patients.

Without the PBS subsidy, they would have to pay approximately $150,000 for access to Bavencio. From May 1, that will come down to $40.30 per script, or just $6.50 with a concession card.

One person who has already benefitted from the drug is Wayne Lieberman, a radio news presenter who lives in Burleigh Heads, Queensland.

Mr Lieberman, 75, was diagnosed with Merkel cell carcinoma in February of 2016 after a lump appeared on his neck. By the time of his diagnosis, the cancer had spread to 12 lymph nodes in his body.

He immediately underwent surgery and radiation treatment, and went into remission. But by February 2018, the cancer had metastisised, and was spreading in three new locations.

"Within a month I went onto Bavencio," Mr Lieberman told news.com.au. The results were incredible.

"After three months, another scan showed I was completely clear of the hot spots."

Mr Lieberman will be on Bavencio for life. He said the drug had given "new hope" to patients, and the government's decision would add to that hope.

"It's a very aggressive form of cancer. It can be operated on, but once diagnosed, it usually starts spreading to the body within another two to three years. In my case it was two years," he said.

"The treatment options were very limited for the patient.

"Bavencio has opened up new hope for not only myself but patients all over Australia. Now they've got a lot of hope that they can get back to their lifestyle - and continue living. That's the bottom line."

The second medicine being added to the PBS is the breast cancer drug Ibrance, otherwise called palpociclib.

Specifically, it is used to treat hormone receptor positive locally advanced inoperable or metastatic breast cancer. Hormone receptor positive tumours are the most common form of the cancer, and account for most of the deaths it causes.

Ibrance inhibits two proteins which drive the growth of tumour cells. As such, used in combination with other drugs, it can slow the progression of breast cancer.

But patients currently pay more than $55,000 a year for the medicine.

Once it is listed on the PBS, again on May 1, about 3000 Australians will gain access to it for $40.30 per script, or $6.30 with a concession card.

"These treatments improve lives. They reduce the burden of expensive medicines, saving patients and families money," Health Minister Greg Hunt said.

"Our commitment to the PBS is rock solid. Together with Medicare, it is a foundation of our world class health care system."

Mr Hunt sought to create a contrast with Labor, saying only the government would subsidise all drugs recommended by experts.

"Every medicine was recommended to be added to the PBS by the independent expert Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee. By law the federal government cannot list a new medicine without a positive recommendation from the PBAC," Mr Hunt said.

"Unlike Laobr, we are subsidising all drugs recommended by the independent medical experts. Since 2013, our government has listed more than 2000 new or amended items on the PBS.

"This represents an average of around 30 listings per month - or one each day - at an overall cost of around $10.6 billion."



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