Gerringong man alive thanks to cancer drug approval

THANKFUL: Three years after being told there was nothing left to be done for his terminal cancer, Gerringong resident Paul Hazlewood is still here thanks to an immunotherapy drug. Picture: Robert Peet
THANKFUL: Three years after being told there was nothing left to be done for his terminal cancer, Gerringong resident Paul Hazlewood is still here thanks to an immunotherapy drug. Picture: Robert Peet

Paul Hazelwood was told there was nothing else doctors could do to treat his rare terminal cancer.

Three and a half years later the Gerringong man is still living with stage 4 small bowel cancer, a fact he puts down to a medical trial and cancer drug called Keytruda.

"I owe it everything," Mr Hazelwood, 44, said.

In a big win for people with rare cancers, the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) approved Keytruda's use for multiple rare cancer types.

It's the first time a cancer drug has been approved in Australia based on the genetic profile - or biomarker - of a tumour rather than cancer location.

Dr Stephen Kao, medical oncologist and principal investigator of a clinical trial of Keytruda at Chris O'Brien Lifehouse, said it was the first time a biomarker (dMMR/MSI-H) "has unified oncology".

"If you've got this biomarker it doesn't matter what cancer patients may have, we believe that Keytruda or immunotherapy will be effective," Dr Kao said.

"Earlier research found colorectal cancer patients who had the biomarker had a much higher response to the immunotherapy drug than those who did not have the biomarker.

"If colorectal cancer exhibits those biomarkers and responds to Keytruda better than those that didn't, what about the other tumours?"

The subsequent and ongoing trial involved patients - including Mr Hazelwood - with a variety of rare cancers who had exhausted other treatment options such as chemotherapy.

"The trial demonstrated in those people, a significant amount of people responded to Keytruda and not only did they respond, they tended to have quite a durable response," Dr Kao said.

Mr Hazelwood's oncologist Clinical Professor Morteza Aghmesheh said the former coal miner would likely not be alive today without that treatment.

"I think he is in complete remission," said Professor Aghmesheh - who ran a separate trial to the Lifehouse trial - adding Mr Hazelwood would still need long-term monitoring.

It's been just over a year since Mr Hazelwood finished his two-year course of Keytruda.

The father of two said he did not know how long he would have lived without the immunotherapy.

"If you saw me now you'd never think I've got terminal cancer," he said.

Keytruda is currently only listed on the PBS for a few cancers, and without that subsidy, the drug is not a cheap treatment.

At full price, the drug can vary between $8500 and $16,500 a month depending on the patient's body weight.

The Lifehouse trial had patients on the drug for two years.

Richard Vines, chairman of Rare Cancers Australia said the TGA approval was "very exciting" and offered great hope for people with rare cancers, but the government needed to "urgently" address the cost of the drug.

"It's a great step forward, it's just not going to put drugs in the hands of patients just yet," he said.

Mr Hazelwood said the drug's listing would give people hope of longevity.

"It will mean everything for anyone that's in the situation I'm in," he said.

Mr Hazlewood added the drug had allowed him to keep enjoying life with his wife and two teenage children.

"I would say it's been a good five years."