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Prohibitive costs mar cancer therapy



15 July, 2005: 

Costs of certain new line therapies against cancer are exorbitantly high, even though these drugs offer some hope to patients.

Avastin, Erbitux, Gleevec, Herceptin, Rituxan, Tarceva are among the first in a wave of new drugs giving hope to millions of cancer patients by treating the disease in new ways, like blocking the blood vessels that feed tumors. 

But they cost hundreds of times the cost of older cancer drugs as they can go up to $100,000 for a course of treatment that lasts a few months. 

According to experts, most of these drugs do not justify the costs as they offer only marginal benefits over existing therapies against cancer like prolonging life by a few weeks or months. Gleevec, a leukemia drug from Novartis, is the only exception as it shows some remarkable advantages.

Genentech’s Avastin, though considered promising in colon cancer treatment, a year's supply of the drug costs $54,000 for a patient.

Drug companies say many factors drive the pricing of their drugs, including the high cost of research and development, complex and expensive manufacturing processes and the value the drugs provide for patients. 

Advocacy groups for cancer patients have been mostly silent on drug prices because pressing drug makers might discourage them from making the billion-dollar investments necessary to find new drugs.

The upward spiral started in 1992, when Bristol-Myers Squibb began charging $4,000 a year for Taxol, a breast cancer treatment that was among the first so-called targeted drugs, which are aimed at destroying tumors without the side effects of traditional chemotherapy.

At the time, some lawgroups protested the pricing arguing that Taxol had been invented at taxpayer expense at the National Cancer Institute. But Bristol held firm.Then in 1998, Genentech began charging $20,000 a year for Herceptin, another targeted therapy for breast cancer. The price attracted notice, but little criticism.Four years later, Bristol and ImClone Systems began charging as much as $100,000 a year for Erbitux, a drug for advanced colon cancer. 

Cancer drugs is estimated to be the fastest-growing part of the drug market for the next five years, with costs rising 20 per cent a year, more than double overall drug spending, analysts say. Every major drug maker is now investing heavily in oncology, rushing to capitalize on new research about the way cancer cells reproduce.


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