€80k drug for advanced breast cancer may be funded by HSE
A groundbreaking drug that costs €80,000 per patient could soon be given to women with advanced breast cancer.
Palbociclib has been hailed as one of the most important advances in 20 years for treating breast cancer.
The Sunday Independent has learned the National Centre for Pharmacoeconomics (NCPE), which advises the HSE on the cost-effectiveness of medicines, is assessing the 'value for money' of the drug.
It has also emerged pharmaceutical firm Pfizer has provided the new breast cancer drug palbociclib (Ibrance) for free to certain patients while the NCPE decides if it should be available on the public health system.
A full course of the drug costs around €80,000.
It comes after Health Minister Simon Harris intervened to defer a plan to ration vital post-operation products for breast cancer survivors.
The HSE is reducing the supply of post-mastectomy bras and prostheses in areas where the scheme is working well so that the service can be extended countrywide.
The controversial changes were due to come into effect yesterday but have now been postponed for a month.
Palbociclib is being manufactured for global supply from Pfizer's manufacturing site in Ringaskiddy, Co Cork.
It is licensed for hormone receptor positive, HER2 negative locally advanced, and metastatic breast cancer.
Metastatic breast cancer is the most advanced stage of the disease. It means the cancer has spread beyond the breast to other organs in the body, most often the bones, lungs, liver or brain. About 30pc of women diagnosed with early breast cancer will progress to this stage of the disease.
The drug prolongs life by an average of 10 months compared to existing treatments.
It has been hailed by oncologists as one of the most important advances in the field for the past 20 years.
According to National Cancer Registry Ireland, 30,000 women are living with breast cancer in Ireland.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 women are fighting metastatic breast cancer at any one time.
Pfizer confirmed it has an "interim patient access scheme" under way for patients while the reimbursement process takes place.
In order to ensure suitable patients could benefit from the drug as early as possible, it started the programme providing the medicine free of charge to "suitable patients referred by their specialist".
The pharma giant first started deliberations with the NCPE last November.
However, it stressed it remains at the "earliest stage" in the reimbursement process, with a Health Technology Assessment (HTA) review still "ongoing". It added: "There are a number of stages following the completion of the HTA."
It also criticised the length of time the process is taking. "Ireland has become one of the slowest countries in Europe to reimburse innovative medicines for patients," the firm said in a statement.
A recent report, 'A Story Half Told', identified a serious lack of awareness still surrounding metastatic breast cancer in this country.
It found 95pc of women believe that if breast cancer is diagnosed and treated in the early stages, it can be cured.
The reality is early detection does not necessarily help those with metastatic breast cancer. While some patients can live longer, the average survival is two to three years.
The Irish Cancer Society said that while it does not comment on individual drugs or medicines that are awaiting reimbursement decisions, it stressed patients must have access to the "best oncology drugs and treatments" so that their quality of life and chance of living longer increases.
"The society considers continued access to effective treatments for cancer patients to be of critical importance, as we start to look towards a future without cancer," it added.
"For metastatic breast cancer patients, the prognosis is poor and there is a clear need for new treatments.
"We want a strategic, long-term approach taken by Government on how cancer drugs and treatments are going to be financed in the future, so patients have access to the newest, best and most efficacious medicines."
The rate of female breast cancer in Ireland is 12.5pc higher than the EU average, with more than 2,800 cases diagnosed each year.