The $20 treatment that can shrink cancer

Australian scientists have developed a novel cancer treatment that costs just $20 per dose and can shrink tumours and make patients more comfortable.

The Cancer Council estimates that each year around 150,000 people are diagnosed with cancer in Australia, with just under 50,000 deaths annually. Almost half of all people will be diagnosed with cancer by the age of 85.

The emotional cost of cancer is immeasurable, and the financial costs can devastate families. But a revolutionary new treatment could change at least part of that challenge.

In a research paper, Australian researchers say they have demonstrated a ‘low-cost, non-toxic’ cancer treatment that involves injecting dead bacteria into tumours. This helps to kickstart the immune system’s response and the tumour begins to shrink.

Read: Australians divided over the cost of medicines

“The idea is this will bring immune cells into the cancer to attack the bacteria, even though they’re dead, and as a side-effect cause the immune cells to attack the cancer as well,” says Dr Aude Fahrer, lead author of the study.

Once the immune cells multiply inside the cancer, they can then travel around the body, beyond the initial injection site. This allows the treatment to work not only on the main cancer but anywhere the disease has spread through the body.

The treatment was developed in collaboration with the Australian National University (ANU), Canberra Hospital Cancer Centre, the University of Queensland’s School of Veterinary Science and researchers in Switzerland.

“We’ve treated eight patients as part of this trial,” Dr Fahrer says. 

“They were all late-stage patients, but in one case in particular we were able to significantly improve the patient’s quality of life. The treatment reduced the amount of liquid around their lungs and was able to shrink one of their cancers.

“It is also extremely low cost. We are looking at around $20 a dose, whereas the cost of other immunotherapies can run to $40,000.”

Read: Plea to subsidise powerful aid in cancer treatment

Although the Medicare system covers some of a cancer patient’s treatment costs, most are left with significant out-of-pocket costs.

When averaged out across all cancer types, Medicare covers around 63 per cent of the total costs of treatment. It’s not even across the types of cancer, with Medicare coverage ranging from 51 per cent for prostate cancer to 89 per cent for lung cancer patients.

Private health insurance may cover a good portion of the rest, but policies often have a large excess to pay on top of your yearly premiums.

A report from the Consumer Health Forum of Australia found that more than a quarter of cancer patients in Australia end up with out-of-pocket costs of more than $10,000, and half end up with costs of at least $5000.

In April, the federal government announced the creation of the Australian Cancer Plan, which sets out “the key national priorities and action areas over the next 10 years to improve outcomes for Australians affected by cancer”.

Read: Older Australians worried about spiralling out-of-pocket health costs

It will cover prevention strategies, early diagnosis, treatment and palliative care, and the unique needs of specific cancer types and populations such as older or Indigenous Australians. But it doesn’t actually address the problem of excessive out-of-pocket costs.

In 2019, then-Labor leader Bill Shorten went to the federal election with a $2.3 billion plan to revolutionise cancer treatment in Australia by offering millions of free scans and consultations.

But Labor under Anthony Albanese is set to dump the popular election pledge ahead of the next national vote in 2022.

What could this revolutionary treatment mean for you? Have you been left seriously out of pocket due to cancer treatments? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Written by Brad Lockyer