HNC patients

Three North Auckland HNC patients in uniform

What is the news this mid-August? We have our YouTube channel up and running, we have received a small grant from Internal Affairs and have a newsletter on the go detailing our charitable giving.

One topic raised in the interview with an Auckland surgeon, which you can see on our channel, is immunotherapy. We know it is not quite there yet for most of us. Keytruda is not funded in NZ for HNC, only for melanoma and a few other cancers. However, there is data for some HNC types which our Auckland medical team think might meet Pharmac’s data criteria.

At the moment Keytruda is approved for metastatic or recurrent inoperable HNC but patients have to spend about $60,000 before the drug company supplies it free of charge. For about 20% of HNC patients with advanced disease it can save or extend lives. You generally need to have biomarkers in your blood to show that it will work for you. I can’t wait for the day when researchers find new immunotherapy drugs or other treatments that can work against several cancer causing pathways and present us with an effective treatment for a wide range of people whose cancer has spread. When the data is stronger pressure on Pharmac might be more successful.

There is a lot of research going on overseas to see how drugs like Keytruda can be used in different ways. One example is as adjuvant therapy to stop the cancer recurring. Adjuvant means that it can be used to mop up cells not killed by conventional therapy. Keytruda seems to work better on the skin cancers, not only melanoma. There is a suggestion it might work on metastatic skin cancers of the head and neck.

The above is what I have gleaned from listening to surgeons and talking to an American patient expert. This is a changing field. We rejoice that some people have an excellent response to Keytruda, wish it was less expensive and look forward to the day it can be added to the treatment toolbox for all who need it.