Keytruda, the immunotherapy drug, is expected to be registered in New Zealand this year for head and neck cancer, says a spokesperson from the drug company Merck.
Once it is registered Merck will make a submission to Pharmac for funding.
At the moment, it can be provided in private clinics but like all of these unfunded drugs it is very expensive. Givealittle accounts are often formed so that patients can access a drug that offers some a small hope for a better outcome if the cancer has spread.
Keytruda works better for some people than others. It can depend on the “biomarkers” on your tumour, as explained by the spokesperson.
Lung cancer is a particular example where patients may be tested for a number of genetic mutations and /or proteins such as PD-L1 which will provide the treating oncologist with important information regarding the treatment options for the patient.
For head and neck cancers, testing for biomarkers is also important as it allows the treating physician to make informed choices between chemo-radiation and immunotherapy options.
Keytruda is suggested or indicated for the following cancers in NZ
Small cell lung carcinoma
Other lung cancers
Relapsed Hodgkin's Disease
Some urothelial carcinomas
It is funded for melanoma but not any of the other cancers listed.
Its scientific name is pembrolizumab. (Drugs ending in -mab are monoclonal antibodies. These drugs engineer our immune system to attack the cancer.)