Sunday, September 06, 2009

For Profit, Industry Seeks Cancer Drugs

The New York Times has a story on the pharmaceutical industry's renewed focus on cancer drugs. Cancer is a cluster of dozens, perhaps hundreds of diseases, and there probably will be no one treatment to cure all kinds of cancer.

Cancer is also a disease that has immense emotional impact ... which can obscure efforts to develop the most effective cancer treatments. Many drugs extend life for a very limited period of time at great cost:

Cancer drugs have been the biggest category of drugs in terms of sales worldwide since 2006 and in the United States since 2008, according to the market researcher IMS Health.

Such money attracts companies. “Cancer is such an emotional issue that the free market doesn’t work like it does for bicycle wheels and umbrellas,” said Robert L. Erwin, a biotechnology industry executive who heads the Marti Nelson Cancer Foundation, a patient advocacy group. “As long as the health care system will pay the price, the money will flow in that direction.”

But Mr. Erwin and some other experts say that is not always a good thing for patients because it can set the bar too low for drug companies.

“As long as the marketplace does not distinguish between modestly effective drugs and dramatically effective drugs, there won’t be an incentive to shift resources to a greater emphasis on a larger benefit,” said Dr. Neal J. Meropol, an oncologist at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia who has been studying drug prices.

Many executives dispute this, saying they would produce drugs offering bigger gains if they knew how. But they must balance their portfolio of experimental drugs between long shots and some drugs that have a better chance of making it to market and sustaining the enterprise.


With health care costs rising, there is new pressure on companies to be more selective in drugs they develop. Some experts now talk about “financial toxicity” as a side effect of cancer drug treatment, along with nausea and hair loss.

“A question is how the system can tolerate 400 new drugs on the market, all at the same price” of $50,000 a year, said Dr. Lee Newcomer, senior vice president for oncology at United Healthcare, a big insurer.

Such cost pressures, and the fact that only a handful of cancer drugs get to market each year, mean the big investments now being made into cancer drugs are likely to turn sour for many companies.

“It’s the biggest bubble you’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Mark Ratain, an oncologist at the University of Chicago.

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