Opdivo: What Australians need to know about this 'miracle' drug

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Preparations of media for cultivating cancer cells, being made in cancer research laboratories at the Old Road Campus research building at Oxford University, in Oxford, Britain May 11, 2016. Reuters/Peter Nicholls

The federal government has announced it will subsidise "miracle" drug Opdivo so Aussies battling advanced lung and renal cancer will have affordable access to it. From Tuesday, patients will pay only $38.80 per treatment, and those with concession cards will pay only $6.30.

The Turnbull government will list the drug on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS). Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Sunday that Opdivo changes and save lives.

Up to now, Australians have had to shell out about $5,000 per course. The drug, which Hunt recognised as something that provides “the precious gift of a full and healthy life” to patients and their families, was one of the biggest listings on the PBS, costing the federal government $1.1 billion.

Heather Allan, Lung Foundation Australia CEO, said the change would help thousands of Australian cancer patients. At least 4,500 patients across the country are expected to benefit each year.

In a statement, Allan called lung cancer a “devastating disease” that kills more Aussies than any other cancer such as melanoma, prostate and breast cancer, the Huffington Post reports. The lack of treatment options, Allan pointed out, has resulted in a significant unmet medical need that had to be addressed.

Things to know about Opdivo

Opdivo is a type of immunotherapy that helps make cancer cells more vulnerable to attack by the body's own immune cells. It activates white blood cells that assist in fighting disease so they can attack cancer cells in the body. Opdivo has been credited with saving the life of AFL star Jarryd Roughead.

The drug, which is currently approved in over 60 countries, will be available on the PBS from the Royal North Shore Hospital in Sydney starting this week. Opdivo was developed by Medarex and Ono Pharmaceutical and brought to the market by Bristol-Myers Squibb and Ono, which commercialise several immunotherapies for cancer patients in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

Opdivo was the first immuno-oncology medicine approved for Australians battling advanced kidney cancer. The drug was approved for five indications since January 2016. Managing Director of Bristol-Myers Squibb Australia and New Zealand Brent Pfeiffenberger said today’s approval exemplifies the company’s commitment to alter the way patients live with cancer.

The federal government believes it is more effective and safer than the existing therapies. "The most uplifting is to see breakthroughs that save lives, transform families and give people real hope - and that's exactly what Opdivo does,” Hunt said.

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