New treatment for Aussies living with asbestos-related cancer

Australians living with inoperable malignant mesothelioma – a rare and aggressive cancer mainly due to asbestos exposure – are set to access the nation’s first reimbursed immunotherapy for this cancer.

OPDIVO® (nivolumab) plus YERVOY® (ipilimumab) will be listed on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) from July 1, 2021 for unresectable malignant mesothelioma. Known as ‘checkpoint inhibitors’, these immunotherapies work together to help activate the immune system to recognise and attack cancer cells.

Medical oncologist from Greenslopes Private Hospital, Dr Keith Horwood, Brisbane, said the reimbursement of a new therapy represents a significant milestone for Australians living with this devastating disease.

“Each year, between 700-800 Australians are diagnosed with mesothelioma, an aggressive cancer with poor survival rates.

“Although Australia has one of the world’s highest incidence rates of mesothelioma, we have limited PBS reimbursed treatment options for patients.

“For survival rates to improve, patients must receive timely access to novel treatments, which is why as clinicians, we welcome the first reimbursed immunotherapy for mesothelioma,” said Dr Horwood.

More than 90 per cent  of Australians living with mesothelioma cite possible or probable exposure to asbestos, as the cause of their disease1 with men more likely to be diagnosed due to increased workplace exposure to asbestos.

According to CEO of Lung Foundation Australia, Mark Brooke, Brisbane: “Mesothelioma can lay dormant for decades, taking between 20 – 60 years to develop after asbestos exposure. This means diagnosis is often delayed and most patients present with advanced or inoperable disease.

“Early diagnosis, support, and access to treatment and care is therefore critical to improving outcomes for Australians living with this rare and aggressive cancer,” Mr Brooke said.

“The PBS listing of the first immunotherapy for inoperable malignant mesothelioma will be warmly received by patients and their families.”

Mesothelioma is an aggressive cancer with a five-year survival rate of less than 10 per cent. Approximately 90 per cent of newly diagnosed mesothelioma patients have pleural mesothelioma, which starts in the lining of the lungs.

Former butcher and retired construction worker, Alan, 75, Gold Coast, wasn’t familiar with the rare and aggressive cancer before being diagnosed with pleural mesothelioma in 2020 after experiencing persistent shortness of breath.

“The first thing I thought when they told me I had mesothelioma, was ‘geez, that sounds like a country in Europe.’ I wasn’t prepared for the devastating news that followed.

“I was in a pretty dark place in the hours after my diagnosis. But then Dr Keith Horwood came in and told me he was going to start me on dual immunotherapy treatment, and I felt like the dark cloud lifted a little. It gave me hope,” said Alan.

“When they told me it was asbestos-related, I eventually traced it back to a butcher shop I renovated in the 1970s. Back then we didn’t know the dangers of asbestos, so it was in everything and was everywhere. It’s just bad luck really.

“I’m very lucky to have so much support around me, especially my amazing wife of nearly 50 years. My three kids and six grandkids all live close by too, so I couldn’t ask for anything more.

“I’ve had 75 good years, and I’m hoping with treatment, to get a few more, so I can spend it with my grandkids and watch them grow up,” Alan said.

Medical Director of Bristol-Myers Squibb Australia and New Zealand, Dr Melinda Munns, Melbourne said the listing is a significant milestone for Australian patients living with unresectable malignant mesothelioma. “Today we celebrate the achievement of securing reimbursement for the first immunotherapy for inoperable malignant mesothelioma, bringing a new treatment option to the patient community and their clinicians.”

Story source: Lung Foundation Australia

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