29 Apr 2016

Melanoma drug offers bargaining chip

10:14 pm on 29 April 2016

New Zealanders with advanced melanoma have welcomed Medsafe's approval of Keytruda alternative Opdivo, saying it's a step in the right direction.

Drug firm Bristol-Myers Squibb confirmed today its drug nivolumab, sold as Opdivo, has been approved by Medsafe for use in this country, and it has applied to Pharmac to have it funded.

Until now, pembrolizumab, sold as Keytruda, was the only new immunotherapy drug for advanced melanoma on offer in this country.

Pharmac, which had a budget of $800 million this year, made headlines earlier this year over its reluctance to fund Keytruda.

Melanoma patient advocate Kathryn Williams, who was diagnosed with melanoma in 2009, said there had been a "huge emotional outpouring" after the second drug's approval by Medsafe.

"Melanoma patients across New Zealand are on tenterhooks around the decisions for funded effective treatment in New Zealand," she told Checkpoint with John Campbell.

"This is great, it's a step in the right direction - I don't want to diminish the positivity of today - [but] we need to take that step closer to the government picking up one of these registered drugs and saying 'guys, this is what we're going to fund'."

Both Keytruda and Opdivo are expensive, but Cancer Society medical director Chris Jackson said the registration of a second drug should enable Pharmac to bargain over price.

The ball was now in the drug-buying agency's court, he said.

"Medsafe registration is usually considered necessary prior to being considered by Pharmac.

"We can now expect Pharmac to lever one company off against each other in order to drive down the price for New Zealand taxpayers to get the best possible value for money."