Cancer specialists in Australia are calling for a national policy on genetic testing of cancer patients in public and private hospitals to identify who can receive particular drugs that work only in the presence or absence of a particular gene.

The call comes as the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee decides this week whether or not to recommend a subsidy for Erbitux, a Merck Serono drug for treating bowel cancer. The drug can shrink tumours depending on a patient's gene.

The call also follows a plan by the federal health department to set up mechanics for approving gene testing and reimbursing the $200 cost of the test under Medicare. The total treatment cost to some patient is $20,000.

Among the supporters of gene testing is John Stubbs, the executive director of the advocacy group Cancer Voices Australia. Stubbs said he supported a standardised regime because it would bring the right treatment for cancer patients, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

At present, gene testing for the breast cancer drug Herceptin is the only one subsidized by the federal government following an intense lobbying by several groups.