More than 1000 patients with an incurable type of blood cancer are expected to benefit from a “completely new” treatment that will be subsidised by the federal government in the new year.
Darzalex, which will be listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) from January 1, is a medicine used to treat multiple myeloma, a cancer that causes cancerous plasma cells to accumulate in bone marrow and crowd out healthy blood cells.
An estimated 18,000 to 20,000 people are living with multiple myeloma and about 1000 die with it each year, Myeloma Australia chief executive Steve Roach said.
Miles Prince, the director of molecular oncology and cancer immunology at Epworth Health Care, said treatment options for the cancer had been “quite limited”.
But he described Darzalex as a “new drug acting in a completely new way” that could allow patients to go for years before needing further treatment.
“For the first time we see amazingly deep responses, for the first time the patient’s disease almost disappears — and I emphasise the word almost because it will come back,” he said.
“But the deeper we get that response, the longer it lasts for.
“So it becomes actually undetectable for quite some time, and it’s the first time we’re seeing responses where we just cannot see the myeloma at all. It does come back, but it takes a long time.”
Multiple myeloma is similar to leukemia in that it affects blood cells, but is a different disease.
It can damage people’s bones and weaken the immune system, and is often diagnosed in older people with aches and pains that cannot be explained another way, Mr Roach said.
‘Light at the end of the tunnel’
Professor Prince said while Darzalex did not cure myeloma, it was an “incredibly powerful tool” that could work for several years.
“In one way it gives us a bit of light at the end of the tunnel, that we may be able to cure this cancer one day,” he said.
Darzalex works by binding to the cancerous plasma cells and either destroying them directly or helping the immune system identify and kill them.
The treatment will cost patients as little as $40 per month, or $480 a year, when listed on the PBS, down from up to $160,000 per year. Concession card holders will pay even less.
The federal government said about 1165 patients would benefit from access to the treatment.
It will be listed on the PBS as a second-line treatment for when patients relapse.
Mr Roach said the announcement was “enormous” and “heart-lifting” news for people with myeloma and their families.
“It’s absolutely huge,” he said.
“People have been waiting for this moment to … know that we’re there with the rest of the world and we have the best treatments available.”
Mr Roach said living with an incurable disease “hanging over your head” was difficult for patients.
But he also said one of the things that made it difficult was the fact it was seen as a rare disease that was not talked about very often.
“You’re living with that, without people understanding what you’re living with, so it can be a heavy weight for patients, I think,” he said.
“When things like this happen it not only creates hope, but it also means people are taking notice.”