Breast cancer ‘game changer’ hits New Zealand - but only for women who can afford it
Despite being fast-tracked by the FDA in the US, patients and charities are hoping Ibrance can receive public funding
By Belinda Feek
A new drug described as a “game changer” for women with a common and incurable type of breast cancer is now available in New Zealand - but only to those who can afford it.
Breast cancer charity Breast Cancer Aotearoa Coalition [BCAC] chairwoman Libby Burgess said Medsafe NZ had just approved the use of Ibrance for those with advanced hormone receptor positive and HER2-negative breast cancer.
She described Ibrance as “revolutionary” and preliminary clinical evidence for it was so strong that the United States Food and Drug Administration had fast-tracked its use in that country. The treatment essentially stops cancer cell division and growth.
“This medicine is a game changer for women with hormone receptor positive, but HER2-negative breast cancer.
“But many will still miss out on this potentially life-saving medicine because it is not publicly funded. BCAC and breast cancer patients are desperate to see the Pharmaceutical Management Agency, or PHARMAC, fund Ibrance for use in our public hospitals and we hope this will happen in the near future,’‘ she said.
Dr Reuben Broom, Medical Oncologist from Auckland, said the treatment represents a significant advance for more than 400 New Zealand women who are diagnosed with the common type of advanced breast cancer.
Lower Hutt mother-of-three Mary Margaret Schuck credits the drug for halting the growth of her cancer which was originally diagnosed in 2010.
Since being told in November that she was in the advanced stages the Massey University tutor searched for something that could buy her more time.
She discovered Ibrance in Malaysia and has been buying it at a cost of NZ$7,500 (US$5,376) for a three month supply but is unsure how long that can continue.
”I’ve got three teenagers...given where they are in their lives it’s really important that we put the cancer at bay for as long as possible.”
Although it has been well worth it, it was gut-wrenching for her to know that so many others, including friends, were missing out on the drug due to the exorbitant cost.
“There has been no change [in cancer growth] for the past year which I’m very grateful for and I’m very, very conscious how lucky we are that we are in a position that we can do this because I have a number of friends here who can’t.”
Even though she pays NZ$30,000 (US$21,507) it was still half the cost of what it was currently in New Zealand - NZ$60,000 (US$43,014).
The drug helped with her fatigue which used to be constant.
“I was having huge amounts of fatigue before I started taking it ... when it started working I felt much, much better.”
However, she feels she is beginning to build an immunity but said she was still in a better place for having taken it.
”For most women who take this drug it increases the length of time before the cancer progresses by a year or so and in some cases more than that. I know women who have been taking it for four or five years now.”
Although she urged Pharmac to fund it, she wasn’t sure if it would ever happen.
“They’ve got such a backlog at present that they’re not likely to look at this for years.”
Ibrance is taken as an oral pill and produced by the pharmaceutical company Pfizer.
Pfizer has confirmed the treatment is not currently funded and Pharmac was not able to comment on funding.
Labour’s health spokesman David Clark said Pfizer had announced a worldwide clinical trial of the drug for 500 people, including some Kiwis.
As one of its election health promises, Labour had proposed a National Cancer Agency which would provide more even access for clinical trials which were currently haphazard in nature.
A spokesperson for Health Minister Jonathan Coleman said he couldn’t comment on Pharmac’s funding issues.