Breast cancer treatment Enhertu: calls for registration of expensive drugs in the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme

A growing number of Australians diagnosed with breast cancer are urging the federal government to subsidize the cost of Enhertu, a drug used to treat people with a certain variant of the deadly disease.

The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) delayed its decision to subsidize AstraZeneca’s drug Enhertu last year, saying the drug needed to be more cost-effective.

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The PBS report estimated that more than 1,300 people across Australia would be eligible to use Enhertu, which fights metastatic HER2-positive breast cancer.

The program said the drug “addresses a high and urgent and unmet clinical need” and asked AstraZeneca to resubmit an application with changes to its economic model for an “early fix.”

Sarah Lee was diagnosed with HER2-negative breast cancer in 2017 and hopes Enhertu will eventually be approved by the PBS.

Sarah Lee is one of many breast cancer patients requesting a grant from Enhertu. Credit: 7NEWS

Lee’s family has been paying $12,300 for the drug every three weeks using her pension and life insurance.

She has spent $61,000 on five treatments so far.

“I had a little bit of super and a little bit of life insurance, and I decided our kids would rather spend time with me than have money,” she said.

“The hardest decision is when you run out of money and the drug is still working, what do you choose?”

“Are we going to sell the car? Or what other assets do we have?”

Lee was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 41, and despite treating it for a year, she said the cancer had come back to her back and liver. Credit: delivered

Despite a year of chemotherapy, a mastectomy and 25 radiation therapy sessions, Lee was told the cancer had recurred in her spine and liver before Christmas 2022.

“My oncologist said I’d probably make it through Christmas, and that was a massive reality check,” Lee said.

Enhertu, also known as trastuzumab deruxtecan, is effective against HER2-positive and HER2-low metastatic breast cancer that cannot be surgically removed and has previously been treated with an anti-HER2 drug or chemotherapy.

It does this by stopping the growth of that particular type of cancer cell.

The PBS report said it would cost the federal government between $80 million and $90 million to subsidize the drug for a year.

Need for a cancer drug fund in Australia

Enhertu is used by cancer patients who have already tried treatments such as chemotherapy. Credit: 7NEWS

Enhertu for HER2-negative patients like Lee was approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration just this week and has not yet been submitted to PBS.

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said the Australian government needed to set up a cancer drug fund that would help patients get their drugs at a cheaper cost before they were approved for subsidies.

Similar funds exist in the UK.

“Our 2023-24 federal budget proposal and our response to the draft Australian Cancer Plan have called on the Australian Government to fund a specific line item or alternative funding mechanisms to allow faster access to new cancer drugs,” the spokesman said in a statement .

“The additional budget item is a necessary step for Australia to quickly catch up on cancer treatments that are currently reimbursed abroad and not in Australia.”

Lee said any support that could be provided to breast cancer patients who need Enhertu would be life changing.

“Anything that helps people like me afford the drugs will be good,” she said.

“We lay in bed at night and thought about how we could get the money”

Federal Health Minister Mark Butler was asked for comment.

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James Brien

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