New hope for SA cancer patients

JOHANNESBURG, September 2020 – The approval of a breakthrough cancer medicine for a wider range of conditions offers renewed hope for South African patients battling this dreaded disease.

KEYTRUDA® previously used to treat metastatic melanoma and second line metastatic non-small cell lung carcinoma (NSCLC), has been approved for the treatment of bladder cancer and first-line NSCLC by the South African Health Products Regulatory Authority (SAHPRA).

The regulatory approval follows the review of studies and clinical-trial data that showed the medicine was safe and effective against additional cancer types. This opens the door to many more cancer patients receiving effective treatment.

The approved medicine is an immunotherapy treatment that enlists the body’s own immune system to fight cancer and can reduce the need for major treatments such as chemotherapy.

KEYTRUDA® manufactured by global pharmaceutical company MSD, was approved in 2017 to treat metastatic melanoma and advanced lung cancer. It is now approved for:

  • First-line treatment of advanced lung cancer[1]
  • First- and second-line treatment of advanced bladder cancer[1]

“This is an incredible breakthrough for South African cancer patients and we’re extremely proud that our medicines can now help to save and improve the lives of more people,” said Dr Priya Agrawal, Managing Director for MSD in South Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa. “Most of us know someone who has been touched by cancer and our mission as a company is to ensure positive outcomes for as many patients, as we have seen the impact of this medicine in other countries and I am so glad to be able to make it available to South African patients as well”.

According to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), lung cancer[2] caused the deaths of 1,7 million people globally in 2018, while bladder cancer[3] claimed the lives of around 200 000 patients.

In South Africa, more than 100 000 cases of cancer are reported each year, with 57 373 deaths recorded in 2018. While 848 patients lost their lives to bladder cancer in 2018, lung cancer is the deadliest form of the disease, with nearly 8 000 deaths in that year alone.[4]

“South Africa has significant challenges around lung cancer,” said oncologist Prof Bernardo Leon Rapoport. “With another first-line treatment available for advanced lung cancer, we can look to improve survival rates, which mean a better quality of life for cancer patients and a reduced disease burden on society”.

Such breakthroughs in research, development and approvals in the immuno-oncology space give governments, health systems and physicians the opportunity to help more patients.

“Immunotherapy medicines create new options to treat cancer, which may prolong survival or turn cancer into a manageable, chronic disease,” said oncologist Dr Devan Moodley. “This approval is welcome news, and we need to continue research in this area, with the aim of expanding the cancer types we can treat”.


About first- and second-line cancer treatments

First-line treatment: This is the first treatment given for a disease. It is often part of a standard set of treatments, such as surgery, which may be followed by chemotherapy and radiation. When used by itself, a first-line therapy is the one accepted as the best treatment. If it doesn’t cure the disease or it causes severe side effects, other treatment may be added or used instead.[5]

Second-line treatment: The treatment for a disease or condition after the initial treatment (first-line treatment) has failed, stopped working, or has side effects that aren’t tolerated.[5]


About KEYTRUDA® (Pembrolizumab)

Pembrolizumab is a humanised monoclonal antibody which binds to the programmed cell death-1 (PD-1) receptor and blocks its interaction with ligands PD-L1 and PD-L2. The PD-1 receptor is a negative regulator of T cell activity that has been shown to be involved in the control of T-cell immune responses. Pembrolizumab potentiates T-cell responses, including anti-tumour responses through blockade of PD-1 binding to PD-L1 and PD-L2, which are expressed in antigen presenting cells and may be expressed by tumours or other cells in the tumour environment.


About MSD

For more than a century, MSD, a leading global biopharmaceutical company, has been inventing for life, bringing forward medicines and vaccines for the world’s most challenging diseases. MSD is a trade name of Merck & Co., Inc., with headquarters in Kenilworth, N.J., U.S.A. Through our prescription medicines, vaccines, biologic therapies and animal health products, we work with customers and operate in more than 140 countries to deliver innovative health solutions. We also demonstrate our commitment to increasing access to health care through far-reaching policies, programs and partnerships. Today, MSD continues to be at the forefront of research to advance the prevention and treatment of diseases that threaten people and communities around the world – including cancer, cardio-metabolic diseases, emerging animal diseases, Alzheimer’s disease and infectious diseases including HIV and Ebola.

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[1] KEYTRUDA Approved Professional Information MSD (Pty) Ltd 9 June 2020



[4] WHO

[5] Cancer.Net Doctor-Approved Patient Information From ASCO. When The First Treatment Does Not Work. (Accessed 27 August 2020)