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The Ontario government announced Friday that it will pay for Herceptin, a breakthrough breast-cancer drug so promising that many Canadian women have dipped into their life savings to travel to the United States to receive treatment.

The government has promised $148-million to pay for Herceptin and two other drugs - Navelbine for lung cancer and Taxotere for prostate cancer.

Health Minister George Smitherman made the announcement Friday morning at the Princess Margaret Hospital in Toronto. Herceptin was fast-tracked through the review process so it would be made available to cancer patients several months early, he said.

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In making the announcement, Ontario became the second province to make the drug widely available, after British Columbia did so this month. Third will be Saskatchewan, which says it will be covering the cost of the drug is expected to cost taxpayers $3.4 million-annually.

Described as the biggest breast cancer breakthrough in a decade, Herceptin has been used across Canada for six years to treat those with incurable breast cancer who produce too much of the HER-2 protein.

New clinical trial results show that when used with chemotherapy, the drug cuts the risk of recurrence for women with a curable form of the disease by more than half, within four years of diagnosis.

An estimated 15 to 30 per cent of breast cancer patients have the genetic mutation, which makes their disease more aggressive, more likely to recur and consequently, more difficult to treat. But Herceptin can reverse their prognosis from poor to good. Those clinical trial results caused breast cancer patients to clamour for the drug. The Globe and Mail reported on funding problems in obtaining the drug across the country, and how that was forcing some women to travel to the United States for treatment.

At least eight travelled to Buffalo at their own expense to pay for the next best thing to a cure.

Bureaucracy and cost pose the biggest problems for obtaining the drug in Canada. Herceptin's price in Canada is $35,000 to $45,000 annually, depending on a patient's weight.

In Ontario alone, the total cost has been pegged at $55-million annually.

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Ontario's move today comes after provincial Health Minister George Smitherman took the unprecedented step last month of fast-tracking the approval process, which shortened it by several months.

In the past week, the Drug Quality and Therapeutics Committee, an expert advisory panel, recommended that Herceptin be funded.

For an estimated 900 Ontario breast cancer patients, it means the drug will be available immediately.

And that is good news for Noshein Masoumeh, a 32-year-old chemical engineer based in Toronto. She requires Herceptin some time within the next five months, but cannot afford the estimated $100,000 (U.S.) for a year of treatment in the United States.

"If it was a one- or two-time deal, I could afford it," she said.

Currently, Herceptin is provided on a case-by-case basis in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Quebec.

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Alberta and Saskatchewan have allowed patients with curable breast cancer to pay for it until it is funded in their provinces.

In Ontario, hospital administrators would not provide the drug to paying patients because they saw it as a violation of the Canada Health Act. They said patients were not allowed to buy drugs and have them delivered by intravenous in a hospital.

That sent eight patients to Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, where its senior vice-president for clinical research, Donald L. Trump, said the hospital's goal is to evaluate and treat patients in seven to 10 days.

One patient, Leslie Cowan, a 42-year-old Toronto mother of two, spent $8,000 (U.S.) in drug and associated doctor costs to obtain Herceptin at the cancer institute.

She has already received one treatment of Herceptin and is scheduled for another this Sunday.

"They're amazing. I've been getting great care there," Ms. Cowan said yesterday. "But it's expensive."

To help with the costly treatment, Ms. Cowan's eight-year-old son Sean presented his mother with every cent in his piggy bank.

Her daughter Samantha offered to give up Christmas presents this year. And the 12-year-old even wrote a letter to Mr. Smitherman, asking him to fund the drug for the sake of her mother and others in need.

Also today, Mr. Smitherman, along with Dr. Bob Bell, president and chief executive officer of the University Health Network, which oversees Princess Margaret Hospital, are to announce the funding of two other cancer drugs: Navelbine to treat some lung cancers and Taxotere to treat some prostate cancers.

With reports from Lisa Priest

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