Date published: 
24 February 2019
Media type: 
Transcript
Audience: 
General public

DOUG HILTON:

My name is Doug Hilton, I’m Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and I’d like to welcome you all today to a wonderful set of announcements.

I’d like to begin by acknowledging that we’re meeting for these announcements today on land under the traditional custodianship of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation.

I’d like to express my gratitude and respect to their elders past and present and I’d also like to acknowledge the role of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander researchers on this campus.

It’s a wonderful day today. It’s really the culmination of a 30-year journey.

Thirty years ago for us at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute we discovered one of the ways that cancer cells become abnormal, how they go from normal blood cells to cancer cells, and that’s by pushing their use-by date way, way, way into the future.

They don’t die when they should. And today, for us, we’re celebrating the listing in the PBS of a new pharmaceutical Venclexta, which is a great new treatment for Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia.

To make that 30-year journey we need governments that are committed to health and medical research, governments that are committed to supporting our clinicians in hospitals to allow them to do clinical trials and governments that are committed then to listing fantastic new pharmaceuticals on the PBS.

Today, it’s a pleasure to introduce the Health Minister, Greg Hunt, who I think has made wonderful contributions to all of those areas of our health and medical research eco-system.

GREG HUNT:

Thanks very much to Professor Doug Hilton and Professor Andrew Roberts here at the amazing Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, a story part of Australian medical history.

And of course, we’ve seen Sir Macfarlane Burnet and Gustav Nossal and so many other magnificent researchers come out of here in the past.

This institute has been associated with a Nobel Prize, and my hope is that in the future this work on Venetoclax will potentially bring another Nobel Prize to Australia.

But more importantly than the potential for a Nobel Prize, it’s already a gold medal for patients such as Deb and so many others.

Today’s a great day for patients. It’s about saving lives and protecting lives.

The Australian Government will invest $200 million in four new breakthrough cancer medicines, medicines for leukaemia, for kidney cancer, for bladder cancer and for liver cancer.

And to have our amazing medical researchers that we’ve met today across all of the different institutions that are here is a real privilege.

To have leaders from the lymphoma, leukaemia, kidney, bladder and liver advocacy groups.

To have the amazing people who are bringing these medicines to market, but above all else to have patients such as Deb and Arthur and Ross here, Marie and all of the others, reminds us that at the end of the day three decades of research comes down to a mum and her kids and Deb being a mum to see her kids grow up, and these beautiful children having a mum that will be there for the whole of the journey.

That’s what this is actually about.

And of course you can only do these things if you have a strong economy which allows us to invest in the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute and other institutes.

Only a few weeks ago we were here for a multi-million dollar investment in a new drug discovery centre to find the daughter or the son of Venetoclax. And that will bring more options for more patients.

To go briefly into these four new medicines on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, all of which will be available from the first of March.

Venetoclax is about Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia, so one of the most insidious forms of leukaemia, and what we will see is that this new medicine will help over 420 patients a year.

It would otherwise have cost $165,000 for a course of treatment and will now be available for as little as $6.50 a script.

It’s accompanied by the fact that we are announcing $1.3 million for Professor Andrew Wei at Monash University to research into new ways and new uses for Venetoclax with patients, and I think Andrew was telling me that Venetoclax is currently being trialled in over 140 different projects around the world.

And when we talk about saving lives and protecting lives we’re talking about a three decade-long research project that has come to fruition and will now be available for every Australian patient that needs it under the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.

For kidney cancer, something that can be such an agonising condition, we have the combination of Opdivo and Yervoy, the immunotherapies for which this year’s Nobel Prize was delivered, the development of new immunotherapies.

And this would otherwise have cost over a quarter of a million dollars a year, and no Australian patient could ever afford that off their own bat other than the most fortunate few.

And in that situation we’ll be helping over 300 patients a year have a real shot at life.

We know that for bladder cancer, a condition with a very low survival rate by cancer standards, the Keytruda medicine gives these patients a shot at a long life, and what a thing that will be.

And over 430 patients will save over $90,000 a year, but more importantly they will have the capacity to treat and beat this cancer.

And then finally liver cancer, one of the lowest survival cancers in Australia. Patients with liver cancer, over 620 of them, will have access now from the first of March to Lenviva, a medicine which will give them a chance at beating and surviving liver cancer.

It’s a cancer which, around the world, has seen little progress in the last three decades, but Lenviva is a breakthrough medicine which will help over 620 patients save more than $60,000 a year.

But at the end of the day it’s not the numbers that matter. Deb, Arthur and Ross and Marie and today is one of the most important ever sets of breakthrough announcements for cancer patients on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. Thank you.

ANDREW ROBERTS:

Thank you very much, Minister. Well this is great news for patients with relapsed Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia, the most common leukaemia affecting Australians.

The listing on the PBS of the Venclexta- rituximab combination for these patients provides them with an additional effective therapy option that they didn’t have previously.

And it’s an option that works differently to any previous treatment, and that is that it targets an element of the leukaemia cells that keeps them alive when it shouldn’t. By targeting at this it switches the leukaemia cells off and they die.

The really clever science behind this is a combination of work that started here at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute 30 years ago, and ever since that time Australian researchers both in the lab and in the clinical trials certainly have been at the forefront of working with the companies to develop Venclexta for the whole world.

In fact the first patient in the world to receive this medicine as part of a clinical trial received it just behind us at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and subsequent patients have been at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.

For all the researchers that have been involved in today’s announcement it’s incredibly gratifying. It’s also gratifying for all the generous supporters and sponsors of the research.

I think it’s most gratifying for the patients that came on the early trials that we conducted here. Their contribution has enabled and will enable many patients into the future to have the benefits of this medication. Thank you.

DEBORAH SIMS:

I was diagnosed with Chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia in December 2011.

My daughter was only 2, my sons were 7 and 5, and I was told I would have five years to live with my type of disease and the disease followed the course that my doctors said it would and I had the standard treatment of chemotherapy.

And four years ago this month I was in the position that many patients now will find themselves in, which is that they needed more therapy, and I couldn’t be more delighted that patients will be able to access Venclexta.

This drug has almost certainly saved my life. My children have their mother because of it, and I am just so pleased that Greg’s decision is going to save hundreds more lives this year.

And I’m very, very humbled to be here today. I’m very grateful that I managed to access this drug four years ago, and I look forward to many, many years with my children because of it.

So thank you to all the scientists, thank you to the Minister and thank you to all the doctors, such as Andrew Roberts, who have worked tirelessly to get this drug to patients because it has given us our future.

ARTHUR CROSBY:

I’ve also been asked to (inaudible) account of my progress for kidney cancer.

Let me apologise in advance if this account is a little disjointed at times because, as a maths teacher, I am usually in the situation where equations provide perspectives and logic, and putting two words together is somewhat more of a challenge.

On Easter Sunday, 2013, after I’d spent the afternoon clearing out the compost bin, I discovered blood in my urine. And no, it was actually 2014.

And just in case you were wondering, I had been in church that morning. A CT scan at the Angliss Hospital showed an abnormality in my left kidney and I was referred to an urologist in private practice, Doctor Trung Pham. Subsequent CT scans showed that the cancer had spread to the renal blood vessels.

On the 17th of May 2014 the kidney and the associated blood vessels were removed at The Valley Private Hospital by Professor (inaudible) and Dr Pham.

Although they were confident that the cancer has been completely removed, (inaudible) CT scans revealed nodules close to my heart and I was referred to Dr Pook, Dr David Pook, an oncologist at Cabrini Hospital.

As a person who prefers to know what the future holds, I remember asking Dr Pham about my long term survival chances.

While he didn’t exactly advise me to make sure my will was up to date, he did say: three years if I could tolerate the chemotherapy, and one year if I couldn’t.

That advice was given in October 2014, so I seem to have beaten these odds. The reason lies in the drug combination of Opdivo and Yervoy, and some good luck in brief timing so that I was able to participate in a trial.

For just over two years following my referral to Dr Pook, the size of the tumour next to my heart remains static.

My (inaudible) immune system seemed to have bottled it up. But in February 2017, a CT scan showed that the tumour had started to grow and had spread to the adrenal glands.

I was fortunate that a trial became available at that time and when offered the chance to participate I had no hesitation.

I haven’t ever seen chemistry, and although my research was in x ray-crystallography and the formation of transitional metal complexes of organotin monothiocarbonates – and not immunology.

My Granddaughter has just finished her science degree at Monash, incorporating a double major in genetics and chemistry, and rose through five distinctions, and she’s about to commence her honours year with a research project that reflects both disciplines.

So I guess you could say that whilst I have only a limited knowledge about immunology, I certainly have a strong interest.

Probably because of the lack of growth in this location, the node next to my heart had not been subject to a biopsy.

But the growth in the adrenal glands did provide the opportunity to confirm a relapse of the renal cancer. A PET scan also identified several small lesions in the lungs.

The immunology infusion, choose your combination of Opdivo and Yervoy, had an immediate effect.

My lesions in the lungs disappeared as did the growth in the adrenal glands, and the massive tumour next to my pulmonary artery in the heart was substantially reduced in size.

However, after about some four infusions some irregularities in the liver showed up in blood tests.

After a gap of one month and (inaudible) continue of Opdivo only.

Whilst it continued a slow but steady reduction in the size of the heart tumour, the development of the skin blisters (inaudible) on with suspension to the immunology program.

A CT scan taken three months ago – about four months ago – after the last infusion showed another small decrease in the size of the tumour.

By this time, the tumour adjacent to my heart had decreased in size from the original 50 millimetres, down to 16 millimetres as a direct result of the Opdivo/Yervoy combination.

When I first met Dr Pook, he said that a success for these sort of treatments was if the tumour remained static in size and did not necessarily decrease; I’ve done better than that.

So like many Collingwood Football seasons: nearly but not quite.

With luck, in 2019 they might win the premiership and I might become totally cancer-free.

There have certainly been some unexpected side effects of my treatment but they’ve been dealt with very effectively by Dr Pook and an endocrinologist Dr Jonathan Cohen of Cabrini, a heart specialist Dr Mark (inaudible) of Cabrini, and more recently by dermatologist Dr Edward Upjohn.

But as Sinatra would have sung: I have had a few effects but too few to mention. So I’m not going to refer to them in detail here. The immunology treatment has been far more important.

BMS is to be applauded for the development of this drug therapy and I am so very grateful they allowed me to participate in the trial.

On behalf of many others who already have, or will in the future be affected by renal cancer, I also (inaudible) my gratitude to the Commonwealth and to the Minister of Health in particular, that this therapy is to be placed on the PBS, making it affordable to many other Australians.

Thank you.

GREG HUNT:

A very engaged patient. There we go. Well done.

ROSS STAINLAY:

Thank you Minister. Thank you (inaudible).

Very happy to be here today. It’s a great day. In fact, any day I wake up with a pulse is a great day. I’m a bladder cancer survivor.

Almost three years ago, I was diagnosed with bladder cancer (inaudible) Keytruda I wouldn’t be here today; I wouldn’t be here to celebrate my grandson’s fourth birthday, which was yesterday. So, it’s a good day indeed.

In my case, there were four critical elements contributing to my successful outcome.

One was the terrific surgeons and medical support staff; secondly, a strong family network; thirdly, access to this new immunotherapy drug Keytruda; finally, access to a healthy bank account.

But today, Minister, I wish to thank you for making this drug affordable and available to all Australians. It’s great news and I’m (inaudible).

NIALL TEBBUTT:

Thank you on behalf of the clinicians.

As a clinical and treating patients with liver cancer, I’m very pleased that from 1 March we’ll have access to (inaudible) Lenvima.

I know from treating these patients that outcomes with liver cancer can be extremely poor and I think Lenvatinib offers us a new treatment that’s certainly going to improve outcomes for patients.

So I think the announcement is very welcome news.

I think it’s a very exciting time to be involved in treatment of liver cancer and other cancers.

We’ve got a range of new treatments. I’m very optimistic for the future – that Lenvatinib is the first of a number of new treatments.

This is the first development in liver cancer for probably a decade; the first new drug that we’ve had made available.

I do see a number of other new (inaudible) on the horizon, though, I think are also going to improve outcomes in the future, and I’m very hopeful and optimistic that that will benefit Australian patients in the long term.

Thank you.

GREG HUNT:

I’m happy to take any questions on the announcements today and then anything else after that, and I understand the patients will also be available (inaudible)

JOURNALIST:

Okay, so just the medications that are available – are they all going to be available from 1 March?

GREG HUNT:

All four medicines will be available from 1 March and every patient that qualifies will be able to receive them. And in some cases, it will save up to a quarter of a million dollars a year.

JOURNALIST:

Obviously, we haven’t cured cancer but it feels like it’s pretty close. Like, this is pretty awesome.

GREG HUNT:

Every day we’re making huge breakthroughs. Our incredible medical researchers; our doctors and our scientist are all working together to save lives and protect lives. Australia is now leading the world in cancer survival rates; but also in cancer research.

JOURNALIST:

I want to ask: is there any other place around the world that offers these sort of treatments at such a small cost? I mean, you said $6.

GREG HUNT:

In my view, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is the best medicines access scheme in the world, and it’s something you can only do if you’ve got a strong economy.

We know that in 2011, the then government stopped listing new medicines because they ran out of money.

The number one task that I have is to make sure that we continue to list the new medicines that will save lives as they become available.

JOURNALIST:

If there’s anything else you want to say- I was just going to ask a question about the heart health checks as well.

GREG HUNT:

Yeah, sure.

JOURNALIST:

I guess, tell us about that and what the Government’s thinking about doing.

GREG HUNT:

So, this is a red-letter day for cardiac patients as well as cancer patients. It’s about making sure that we have an additional heart check that’s available on Medicare.

Again, something you can only do with a strong economy.

And what that means is that we add to the current 13 different heart checks that are available on Medicare with a very specific preventive heart check for early on in a patient’s journey so as they can know before they face the consequences of heart disease or a heart attack; that there are risk factors and if they know that there are risk factors, they can act to prevent and to protect.

JOURNALIST:

And that’s the real key with this, is the preventative and what they can do before it gets worse?

GREG HUNT:

Particularly in the case of heart disease. Our lifestyle and our physical activity; our food and our behaviours can impact our capacity to avoid heart disease, to reduce its likelihood and to reduce its impacts.

JOURNALIST:

And did it take much convincing to give this one the green light?

GREG HUNT:

Well in fact, I had the privilege of a Prime Minister who couldn’t get this listed fast enough.

And so, historically, health ministers have had to deal with the bureaucracy to get new things through; on this occasion I had a Prime Minister who said: what do you need?

When do you need it? Let’s do it.

JOURNALIST:

And when does it all kick off? When does that start?

GREG HUNT:

So, the new heart checks will be available from 1 April and that, in fact, is an almost record listing for a new Medicare item.

JOURNALIST:

I was going to say, weren’t we just talking about it last week?

GREG HUNT:

We were. And we’ve been working behind the scenes with the Heart Foundation and the cardiac community for a long while and so we’ve been preparing for this; to bring it forward.

They came out publically last week and we were able to respond this week, but there’s been a lot of work behind the scenes for quite a period of time, but it’s a record time for a wonderful new Medicare service.

JOURNALIST:

Thank you so much. Cheers.

GREG HUNT:

Alright. Thank you very much.