Monday 20 May 2019

Pressure on Harris for cancer drug use

Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Health Minister Simon Harris. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

The Minister for Health is coming under pressure to open up access to a potentially life-saving immunology drug that was extended to women caught up in the cervical cancer controversy.

Vicky Phelan, who exposed how women with cervical cancer were not being told of their incorrect cancer screenings, credited the drug, pembrolizumab, with "significant shrinkage" in her tumours.

Her oncologist is among the prominent consultants who want women assessed as being suitable for treatment to get access to the drug which costs more than €5,000 for every treatment.

Jessica Grehan has been trying to get on an immunology drug since 2016, when she first began writing to the minister. Young and otherwise fit, she was diagnosed in August 2016 with advanced non-small cell lung cancer. She wrote to the minister asking for help in accessing immunotherapy - the "future of cancer care", according to her oncologist. However, the strict criteria demanded to satisfy the clinical trial of the drug means she will not be eligible even though it may be effective in treating her cancer.

She urged Mr Harris to allow oncologists to decide which patients should be approved for access to the drug rather than the HSE, and when patients have no option other than to buy the drug privately, to make it VAT exempt. She also wants them to widen the availability of the drug by removing the strict HSE licensing criteria around PD-L1 biomarkers.

"Please do not exclude me from this potentially life-prolonging treatment," she wrote. "It must be sensible for the clinician, an oncologist, to make this treatment decision, to understand the possibility of response in their individual patients."

Vicky Phelan says she raised the issue with Mr Harris who "promised me that pembrolizumab would be made available to any women who met the criteria".

Professor John Crown says the same immunotherapy should be approved for all cervical cancer patients with the appropriate biomarker.

Sunday Independent

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