Minister for Health and Aged Care - press conference - 28 April 2024

Read the transcript for Minister Butler's press conference in Adelaide on the new hope for breast cancer patients; cheaper medicines.

The Hon Mark Butler MP
Minister for Health and Aged Care

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MINISTER FOR HEALTH AND AGED CARE, MARK BUTLER: Thank you for coming out. I'm delighted to be joined today by Dr Nick Murray, a medical oncologist who works here at the Royal Adelaide as well as other sites around South Australia and also Libby Nguyen, who is a member of the South Australian community and has been able to access the drug I'm talking about today and get some fantastic results.

Breast cancer is still the most common form of cancer that afflicts Australian women and although we have some of the best survival rates in the world at more than 90 per cent, still more than 3,000 Australian women lose their lives every year to their battle with breast cancer. Today, I'm delighted to announce the expansion of the listing of a drug called Verzenio. This listing will apply to around 2,500 women every single year, who are diagnosed with an early form of common breast cancer. Although this early form of cancer is often successfully treated with traditional treatments like surgery, chemo and radiotherapy, there is for these women about a one in three chance that after that successful treatment, their cancer will return. Using Verzenio will significantly reduce that chance of recurrence and will give new hope for those women, a new sense of security that they will be able to live a long life and share all of those usual milestones with their families and with their children. Verzenio has been on the PBS for some time for advanced cancer which has already spread to distant parts of the body. But this is the first listing for early forms of common breast cancer, accounting for about 70 per cent of all breast cancer cases. As I said it’ll give you new hope to about 2,500 Australian women every single year. Now this is a terrific treatment, but it is very expensive without listing on the PBS a course of treatment would cost an Australian woman and their family about $100,000. But with listing on the PBS that will just cost the price of a usual PBS script, which for most patients would be about $31. This is all part of Australia's terrific Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, which ensures that a time frankly of turbocharged discovery, at the moment in medicine with fantastic new treatments coming on the market very, very regularly, Australian patients and Australian families are able to get access to the world's best treatment at affordable PBS prices, which is all part of our deep commitment to making medicines cheaper. I'm happy to take questions in due course. But before that, I might just hand over to Dr Murray to talk from a clinicians perspective about this drug.
PROFESSOR NICK MURRAY: It's a real privilege to have Mr Butler here in our wonderful chemotherapy unit at the Royal Adelaide Hospital. He's come very well prepared and actually said most of the things I thought I was going to say because he seems to know a lot about it. But breast cancer affects around one in eight Australian women more than 25,000 each year. We are much much better nowadays at curing breast cancer, Around 50, 60 years ago, perhaps half of all women who presented with breast cancer would ultimately have it returned and die from it. As the Minister said, we're down to less than 10 per cent now, but there still are too many breast cancer deaths. And we're able to identify the women who are at highest risk of the cancer coming back and what this drug does it, we can give it to those women at highest risk and reduce their risk of the cancer coming back by about a third, which is extraordinary. I'm really thrilled that we're now going to be able to prescribe it to all those who need it.
ELIZABETH NGUYEN: Thank you. I was really grateful to be able to access this treatment and it's really wonderful that more Australian women and families are going to be able to access this therapy that I've had, to provide an additional layer of treatment and reassurance that cancer will be successfully treated.
JOURNALIST: Libby can you tell us a little bit about your story with cancer and how this drug has just been so effective in helping you?
NGUYEN: I was diagnosed, obviously, unexpectedly with cancer, breast cancer in October 2020. After having surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy, I was able to also be treated with this new treatment. I was aware of the better outcomes that women who've received this treatment had had. So it was really brilliant that I was also able to have it before it's been put on PBS.
JOURNALIST: And when you first got diagnosed, can you just talk me through your feelings? Obviously, it's like your worlds coming crashing down? And how much confusion was there around the different treatment options?
NGUYEN: Yeah, obviously, any cancer diagnosis is very upsetting. I had wonderful care from my doctors, my GP and my oncologist. I don't feel that I was ever confused. But I guess it is a long sort of process of treatment. I think all up it was sort of at least sort of three years and ongoing treatment. So it is a long, long journey.
JOURNALIST: Where are you at in your journey now? And how far have you come because of a drug like this?
NGUYEN: Women would take this treatment for two years. So I've completed the treatment, and I'm back to sort of my usual life and getting on with things.
JOURNALIST: And you're cancer free now?
NGUYEN: Cancer free now.
JOURNALIST: Do you praise this drug that you know, has helped you?
NGUYEN: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it has. It's an additional layer of therapy and treatment that's going to put me in good stead for the future.
JOURNALIST: And as a cancer survivor, how excited are you now that, you know, hundreds of other women across the country will be able to access these drugs at affordable option? How does that make you feel?
NGUYEN: It's absolutely excellent. I think it's a step in the right direction, as new treatments come available all the time, it's excellent that the government can then make these available to women.
JOURNALIST: And $100,000 down to $31 what difference is that going to make across the country?
NGUYEN: I don't think there's many families that can suddenly afford $100,000 a year. It's really out of the realms of an everyday person. So, it means everything.
JOURNALIST:  Professor, I suppose in layman's term, can you sort of describe how this drug actually works in the body?
MURRAY: Cancers grow in the same way as any other cells in our body. One cell copies everything inside and divides into two. There's a whole series of switches that have to be switched from on to off as that process happens. What this drug does is it blocks one of those switches and prevents it from being turned on so that the cancer is unable to keep growing and it seems for whatever reason to be particularly important in hormone sensitive breast cancer.
JOURNALIST: Can you just explain, this treatment is taken over a two year course, why is it two years?
MURRAY: Because that's the way that people who designed the study did it. I can't give you the rationale. But interestingly, there are three drugs in this class. And one of them, a study was done looking at one year. This one was two years, the other drug is a three year study. We don't really know the results of that one yet.
JOURNALIST: And around $31 a month, it's going to cost for these treatments. How important is that affordability aspect of it?
MURRAY: I practice in public and private, but I don't have patients that can afford $100,000 for a drug.
JOURNALIST: How do you compare this drug to drugs in the past, is it  a game changer?
MURRAY: There have been so many game changes in breast cancer, but this is the newest one. There's going to be fewer women having their breast cancer come back in five years’ time, because this drugs been introduced today.
JOURNALIST: This is already available through the PBS for advanced stage cancer patients. Is there any other further scope to see it applied to breast cancer patients more generally?
MURRAY: There are some studies looking at a group of breast cancers called HER2 positive breast cancers that are also hormone sensitive, which is an area we haven't yet started using this drug. So it may be useful there but I don't think we've got the answers yet.
JOURNALIST: How long have you been pushing for this to be on the PBS?
MURRAY: We've known about this for a little bit over two years, because that’s when the access scheme opened, when we had the early results. I think it's come pretty quickly. I think we're really lucky in Australia with how quickly drugs do come through. I'm from the UK originally and it used to take a lot longer.
JOURNALIST: Mental health therapy sessions, when will an alternative been announced?
BUTLER: I've been working over the last 12 months or so chairing a group that represents the mental health sector very broadly. So professional clinicians, but importantly, consumer representatives and others as well, working through the evaluation of the better access scheme, which is the scheme you're referring to. We're now considering the advice that I received from that committee and we'll have more to say about that in the near future.
JOURNALIST: Will it be before the federal budget?
BUTLER: I don't have a particular timeframe to give you today. Thank you.


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