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Government begins subsidizing medication for brain tumor patients

2012/05/01 18:15:58

Taipei, May 1 (CNA) Taiwan's Bureau of National Health Insurance began Tuesday to cover the cost of the chemotherapy drug Avastin when used to treat brain tumor patients.

The bureau estimated that 60 to 150 patients with Glioblastoma multiforme (GBM), a particularly aggressive type of malignant brain tumor, will benefit from the chemotherapy drug, which has been covered by the bureau in the past when used to treat colon cancer patients.

The bureau's new program is expected to help patients save NT$120,000 (US$4,112.63) in monthly medical bills for the drug, which costs NT$9,211 per bottle.

But including the new application on the list of drugs covered by the insurance program will also add NT$30 million to NT$70 million annually to the bureau's expenses over the next five years.

Avastin, also known as Bevacizumab, is mainly used in the treatment of colon cancer and can prevent the growth of new blood vessels, which can help stop the growth of tumors, said Shih Ju-liang, an official of the bureau.

Malignant brain tumors account for 0.75 percent of diagnosed malignant tumor cases, and GBM patients comprise 43 percent of all malignant brain tumor cases in Taiwan, Shih said.

The disease usually occurs in individuals between the ages of 45 and 65 and can affect a patient's motor skills, sense of touch, language abilities, and vision and even cause paralysis if the cancer grows to areas of the brain that govern these functions, Shih said.

Brain tumors are generally treated using surgery, radiation or chemotherapy and if the prognosis of the disease worsens or a relapse occurs, there are are no other effective medications or therapies available, Shih said.

That is where Avastin comes into play, because it is almost always used on GBM patients who have had a relapse.

About 400 new brain tumor cases are diagnosed every year in Taiwan, of which 40 percent are benign and 60 percent are malignant, said Taiwan Neurosurgical Society Chairman Lin Shinn-zong.

Malignant brain tumors tend to spread very fast and are difficult to remove, and they can grow up to 16 times their original size within a month, Lin said.

In addition, the most accurate diagnoses are only made in the late stages of the tumor's progression, resulting in a life expectancy of patients of 12-18 months. The five-year survival rate is only 3.4 percent, Lin added.

Chemotherapy treatment, such as temozolomide, issued in six treatments can only extend a patient's life by a few months, Lin said.

(By Jung Rui-yun and C.J. Lin)