Leukemia experts protest skyrocketing drug prices

A group of doctors and researchers is protesting the high cost of certain cancer drugs and is urging pharmaceutical companies to make changes.


A group of doctors and researchers is protesting the high cost of certain cancer drugs and is urging pharmaceutical companies to make changes.

In an editorial in the April 25 online first issue of Blood, the journal of the American Society of Hematology, the doctors suggest that the skyrocketing leukemia drug prices are a form of profiteering.

“This perspective reflects the views of a large group of CML [chronic myeloid leukemia] experts, who believe the current prices of CML drugs are too high, unsustainable, may compromise access of needy patients to highly effective therapy, and are harmful to the sustainability of our national healthcare systems,” the authors wrote.

The doctors are primarily concerned about the 3 newer CML medications approved last year: bosutinib, ponatinib, and omacetaxine. The average yearly cost of ponatinib is $138,000 and for bosutinib, it is about $118,000, they wrote. Omacetaxine costs $28,000 for induction and $14,000 for a maintenance course.

However, Robert M. Goldberg, PhD, cofounder and vice president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest, disagrees with the researchers’ views. “While the lifetime cost of CML treatments is about $15 billion, the social value of longer, better lives is nearly $150 billion. That doesn’t even include savings new drugs generate by reducing hospitalizations and length of stay of CML patients by 30%,” he said.

Imatinib mesylate (Gleevec) and other drugs that target the genetic mutations causing CML have increased average life expectancy by nearly 4 years and are effective cures for many patients, according to Goldberg. On a relative basis, these life-enhancing therapies remain the smallest expense of US healthcare costs, at approximately 1%, he said.

Many media outlets ignored the article’s call for sustaining innovation in order to editorialize in favor of price controls on new therapies, he added. “The pundits overlooked the fact that over the past 2 decades, the percentage of spending devoted to cancer has remained at less than 5% of total health expenditures. The success against CML is part of a wider cycle of medical innovation that over 20 years has continuously extended live expectancy for cancer patients, quadrupled the number of people surviving cancer, and has added 43 million lives and $4 trillion in added income. I can’t say it strongly enough: Medical innovation is what makes life valuable and healthcare affordable.  We need to accelerate this virtuous cycle, not stop it,” Goldberg said.

Meanwhile, the group of doctors urges pharmaceutical companies to avoid the “pay for delay” strategies that slow down the introduction of generic versions of expensive drugs. “Delays of generic TKIs [tyrosine kinase inhibitors] through ‘pay for delay’ or ‘authorized generic’ approaches may harm patients with CML and should be avoided at all cost,” they wrote.

The doctors also suggest regular meetings between all parties concerned with higher drug prices, including FDA, other government agencies, contract research organizations, pharmacists, physicians, pharmaceutical companies, and patient advocacy groups.