Groups seek insurance for immunotherapy for lung cancer patients

Taipei, Oct. 9 (CNA) Two cancer-related societies in Taiwan are urging the government to allow national health insurance to cover payment for immunotherapy for late-stage lung cancer patients without having such patients receive traditional chemotherapy first.Immunotherapy, a type of cancer treatment that boosts the body's natural defenses to fight cancer, offers "a slim chance of survival" to late-stage lung cancer patients, said Taiwan Clinical Oncology Society President Kao Shang-jyh at a recent press conference in Taipei.He pointed out that each year, more than 13,000 people in Taiwan are diagnosed with lung cancer.Because lung cancer cannot be easily diagnosed in the early stage, but spreads quickly, over 70 percent of patients are already late stage when diagnosed, Kao said, noting that such cases can no longer be treated with surgery.Moreover, nearly 40 percent of lung cancer patients cannot be treated with targeted therapy because the tumors do not have special gene characteristics. With chemotherapy the only option within public health insurance, many such patients die within a year of treatment, Kao said.By contrast, the median survival rate for immunotherapy reaches 30 months, the expert in chest medicine said, referring to patients with non-small cell lung cancer receiving the revolutionary cancer treatment.Immunotherapy works by stimulating the immune system to combat cancer cells, according to Kao.He said the T cells of the immune system are like police patrolling in the body. Research has found that a protein called PD-L1 in tumor cells will integrate with PD-1 in T cells, leading the T cells to treat tumor cells as an ally, so that they will not attack the tumor.Scientists have used this knowledge to develop immunotherapy by using checkpoints of the immune system to stop PD-1 and PD-L1 from integrating, so that T cells can identify tumor cells before attacking them, Kao said.Immunotherapy has so far proven efficient in treating melanoma, urothelial carcinoma and lung cancer, he said.Taiwan's National Health Insurance Administration (NHIA) announced in August that late-stage patients suffering from melanoma whose tumors cannot be removed through surgery and whose disease shows no improvement after first-line therapy, will be covered by national health insurance for immunotherapy.The new measure will go into effect in December at the earliest, according to Kao.Meanwhile, Taiwan Lung Cancer Society President Chen Yu-min said it has been about three years since immunotherapy became available. "For lung cancer patients, three years is a threshold of survival they cannot cross," he said.Many patients, he went on, have died while waiting for the national health insurance system to cover immunotherapy because they could not afford the high cost of private treatment.Currently there are 33 countries taking measures to cover immunotherapy bills, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and Japan, Chen said, expressing hope that the government can speed up the review process of their proposal to include lung cancer patients in immunotherapy coverage by the national health insurance system.Asked about the call, NHIA official Tai Shueh-yung told CNA Tuesday that the agency is reviewing the clinical evidence related to immunotherapy and evaluating whether the country's health insurance resources are capable of covering payments for such treatment.