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Herceptin: Will Media Pressure Blow The Budget?

Herceptin: Will Media Pressure Blow The Health Budget?

TVNZ reporter Lorelei Mason

In what may be a sign of things to come, the media turned out in force to discover that the cancer drug Herceptin has been provisionally approved for the treatment of some women with early stage breast cancer by Medsafe.

Medsafe’s decision to provisionally approve the wider use of the breast cancer drug Herceptin will enable PHARMAC to progress its assessment further, according to PHARMAC spokeswoman Dr Dilky Rasiah

“At this stage we can’t guarantee that Herceptin will be funded. We have to determine if the clinical data and cost-effectiveness stacks up. If it does, we then have to reach an agreement with the supplier, Roche, that could make it affordable for DHBs. Finally, DHBs will have to decide if this is something they can afford,” said Dr Rasiah in a press statement today.

For many of the reporters at todays media briefing - especially those from the major television networks - there was only one question that mattered and that was:

"All going well, when will women be able to start getting Herceptin?"

Herceptin is a hugely expensive drug that has lead to debate in other countries, notably the United Kingdom, about whether it is right, in a cash strapped health service, that an expensive, unlicensed drug should be made available to a select group of patients, whilst others are having operations cancelled.

This debate is likely to flow on here after Herceptin passed its first hurdle in what the drug's supporters hope will lead to it being made widely available to patients and subsidised.

Pharmac's Dr Dilky Rasiah, Medsafe principal technical specialist, Dr Stewart Jessamine and Wairarapa DHB chief executive David Meates interact with the media

When asked at today's press conference by Scoop if media reports about Herceptin where likely to help, or hinder, in Pharmac's bargaining with Herceptin's supplier Roche - Dr Rasiah explained she hadn't considered what impact the media interest in Herceptin was going to have.

"Ultimately if the cost is too much the question we, and then the DHBs, have to look at is what else might miss out on funding - that could be medicines and it could be other health services," said Dr Rasiah.

Dr Rasiah said that the price of cancer related medicines seemed to be rising rather than falling.

"A few years ago $20,000 to $30,000 for a medicine was quite high and now we're heading towards the $70,000 to $100,000 range. The question is what, if any, difference is there in the research and so on for these medicines? And we would argue we would need to see evidence [for the rising costs]."

Dr Stewart Jessamine and David Meates

Figures have been bandied about that Herceptin at its current price could end up taking a $30 million dollar chunk out of the health budget.

This figure, although large, is nowhere near the annual wage for the Chief Executive of the company - Genentech - that developed the so-called wonder drug. According to a report by an American biotechnology industry publication, BioWorld, Genentech Chief Executive Arthur Levinson earned $43 million (US) in total compensation in 2004.

According to American newspaper reports Genentech has performed well largely because of the success of its two anti-cancer drugs, Avastin and Herceptin. Genentech's largest shareholder is Roche.

Listen to the press conference:

Scoop Audio.Scoop Streaming Audio: Herceptin press conference, 23/03/06

Click here to download file (mp3)


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