Cancer wonder drug not free to HK patients

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 June, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 June, 2004, 12:00am

A drug that drastically improves the survival rate of breast cancer patients and reduces the chance of the disease resurfacing is not available at the subsidised prescription rate in Hong Kong under the present drugs policy, the Hospital Authority said.

The drug, Letrozole, has raised hopes that the cancer - which kills 400 women a year in Hong Kong - could be cured.

Data presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology on June 9, 'demonstrated a significant 40 per cent reduction in the rate of distant breast cancer recurrences with Letrozole', said Paul Goss, a Canadian oncologist who led the study.

For women whose cancer had spread to lymph nodes at the time of diagnosis, the likelihood of death was reduced by 39 per cent, the doctor said.

All the 5,200 women tested had been taking a drug called Tamoxifen for five years after surgery or chemotherapy to halt the cancer. But Tamoxifen has been found to lose its effect after five years.

Letrozole is one of a new generation of drugs to treat advanced breast cancer. It is marketed as Femara, made by Swiss drugmaker Novartis, and is available in Hong Kong's public hospitals.

Patients pay $10 for medicine per consultation at public hospitals. But he said: 'Femara is not included in the Hospital Authority drug formula at the moment.

'The current arrangement at public hospitals is to prescribe it, if required, to patients as a privately financed item.

'Patients can either pay for it themselves or apply for a subsidy if they have financial difficulties,' the spokesman said.

Femara costs $1,200 a month, while Tamoxifen costs $500 a month in the private sector.

Victor Hsue, medical director of St Teresa's Hospital's Cancer Centre, said that breast cancer usually recurred in 20 to 30 per cent of women after five years of taking Tamoxifen.

In the trial, the women were given Femara within three months of stopping Tamoxifen, Dr Hsue said.

He said he had a patient whose breast cancer recurred after 22 years. He put her on Tamoxifen and she is still surviving eight years on.

'If we have a drug that is doing well in a patient, there is no reason for changing it.'

Dr Hsue believed, though, that Femara could be a good 'extended adjuvant treatment'.