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Call for Keytruda in NZ


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WAITING FOR GOOD NEWS. Cancer patient Alain Jorion is hoping Keytruda will be funded for New Zealanders battling lung cancer. 

HIGH-profile Gisborne fisherman Alain Jorion is calling for the “wonder drug” Keytruda to be funded for lung cancer patients.

“It is my one and only hope,’’ the cancer patient said.

Last year Keytruda, after a much-publicised public campaign, was funded by Pharmac, but for people with advanced stage 4 and 5 melanoma only.

Mr Jorion and other lung cancer patients around the country are now calling for the drug to be funded for them.

“Without funding, it costs $150,000 and would be administered privately in Auckland,” Mr Jorion said.

“Amazingly, Keytruda is administered in Gisborne Hospital and funded, but for advanced melanoma.”

Mr Jorion said funding Keytruda was for the potential benefit of thousands of New Zealanders who have or would get lung cancer in the future.

“After all, it is our greatest cancer killer. The story of Keytruda can be a great story.”

A study presented to Pharmac said one in three patients treated with the drug have their tumours shrink or disappear completely.

The drug is administered intravenously every three weeks.

Keytruda is an immunotherapy drug, which stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer cells.

Known generically as Pembrolizumab, it was approved by Medsafe this year as a first treatment for lung cancer patients who have the PD-L1 expression of non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC)

(PD-L1 is a protein expressed by cancer cells to evade the immune system.)

The drug’s manufacturer, Merck Sharp and Dohme Limited (MSD), are seeking Pharmac funding, but it is not clear how long that will take.

May be a year

Mr Jorion believes it might take a year, while friends and a health professional have told him it might be sooner.

Paul Smith, MSD New Zealand director, said the Keytruda registration “has the potential to transform the way lung cancer is treated in New Zealand”

“Clinical trial results have been so compelling that trial investigators believe Keytruda should replace platinum-based chemotherapy to become the new ‘Standard of Care’ for untreated advanced NSCLC.

Philip Hope, chief executive of the Lung Foundation New Zealand, said,“I hope that this medicine will be made available on a funded basis to all New Zealanders with life-threatening lung cancer”.

Lung cancer is diagnosed in about 2200 New Zealanders a year and more than 1600 people die from it each year.

One in five people diagnosed with lung cancer, like Mr Jorion, have never smoked.

Mr Jorion said he wanted to be involved in Keytruda trials.

“I have to run with the trial as it’s my only hope really.”

His oncologist describes him as “the perfect candidate’’ for the trial as a non-smoker who has not had chemotherapy”.

“She said I was in pretty good nick. She will go back to Hamilton and send me the relevant paperwork to enter me into a trial. Trials are back on the agenda. She says this is her best recommendation for now for me.”

Mr Jorion has another disappointing issue in that Dr William McCallum who has worked with cancer patients at Gisborne Hospital, Palmerston North Hospital and is curently supervising house surgeons and registrars at Dunedin Hospital and helping Otago University students, is having work visa and immigration issues.

Patients using Keytruda

He said Dr McCallum had evidence involving 2799 patients who used Keytruda for lung cancer.

“He has worked extensively in America, Europe, New Zealand.”

He loved Gisborne and would be a great asset to the country.

Dr McCallum told the Herald he supported funding for Keytruda for NSCLC in New Zealand.

“Although expensive, fortunately we are able to bargain for drug prices in New Zealand and that will make the cost significantly less than what it would be in the US.

“Keytruda was originally brought on the market for melanoma but even though its original indication was for melanoma, studies were being done for its use in other cancers, particularly NSCLC.

“It is now being studied for other types of cancers. I say that because it is important to know that many of the new immunotherapies are being used in various other cancers.

“Keytruda is also now known to be more effective in NSCLC when used with classical chemotherapy.

“This information came out of the recent world-wide oncology conference (ACOG) in Chicago in June.

“It is important to remember that cancer is not ‘a’ or ‘one’ disease, rather, as we are finding out more every day, a disease that is a normal cell that has mutated, that unless stopped will grow without interference.

“Now, more and more we are able to look at the specific genetic traits of these cells and find ways to stop them,’’ said Dr McCallum.

Praise for Gisborne Hospital

He had high words of praise for Gisborne Hospital.

“When I worked there, I was very happy with what we could do there and I think we did a very good job and I think they still do.

“The nurses and support staff are fantastic and the doctors I worked with were caring and capable.

“I have stated that to folks in Gisborne who thought maybe it wasn’t such a great place, we can always improve, but we have nothing to apologise for.”

Dr McCallum said he understood and agreed with controls that had to be placed on expensive drugs like Keytruda.

“However, when one has a patient like Alain, a non-smoker and someone who has lived a very healthy lifestyle, then he is the ideal patient.

“Alain is an excellent candidate for Keytruda and, I would argue chemotherapy, as he is chemotherapy naive and has been in complete remission until recently.

“Alain is one of the kindest, gentle and smartest people that I know, and he is a great fisherman.”

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