Academics call time on $100,000 cancer drugs

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By Ben Hirschler

<span class="articleLocation”>A group of academic researchers has demanded an
end to cancer medicines costing more than $100,000 a year and
proposed a new model of low-cost drug development that would
capitalise on recent advances in science.

The spiralling cost of cancer medicines is a growing concern
for doctors and their patients, many of whom struggle to pay for
new medicines that often cost $10,000 a month.

Sky-high prices have made oncology hugely profitable, with
IMS Health forecasting global cancer drug sales of at least $150
billion by 2020. Scientists, however, believe today’s prices are
simply not sustainable as more and more people need treatment.

Writing in the journal Cell on Thursday, European and U.S.
experts laid out a blueprint for reining in costs by increasing
the role of academic research groups, working alongside new
kinds of private companies, in the development of new drugs.

Rather than simply licensing discoveries to Big Pharma,
academic groups should in future consider working with smaller
companies that commit to capping prices, low-cost generic drug
companies or non-profit organisations, they said.

“Something has to change. This is a call to arms,” Paul
Workman, one of the paper’s authors and chief executive of
Britain’s Institute of Cancer Research, told Reuters.

“Charging $100,000 is unsustainable. We need to be thinking
about getting prices down towards a half or a third of that,
ideally even less.”

The call coincides with growing political pressure on the
issue, including an attack on high drug prices by U.S. President
Donald Trump.

Workman, whose institute has discovered 20 drug candidates
since 2005, believes cancer drug prices have become disconnected
from economics as companies charge what the market will bear
rather than a price reflecting costs.

A principal justification for high prices is the financial
burden of running large clinical trials to secure regulatory
approval. Yet this increasingly does not apply in the case of
modern cancer therapies.

For example the registration study for Pfizer’s
targeted lung cancer drug Xalkori required only 347 patients,
while last year’s extended approval of the medicine to patients
with mutations in the ROS1 gene involved only 50 subjects.

Workman, together with colleagues from the MD Anderson
Cancer Center in Texas and the Netherlands Cancer Institute,
said the solution was for an increasing proportion of drug
developments to be driven by academia.

To an extent that is already happening. Many of the latest
advances in cancer treatment originate in academic labs and
there are now nearly 150 academic drug discovery centres around
the world, 80 percent of which develop oncology products.

Those academic centres should in future focus not only on
getting their discoveries to market but also on securing drug
price caps as part of their negotiations with commercial
partners, the authors said.

Increasing the scale and expertise of academic centres will
take time and money, but in the long term the new competition
should also help drive down prices in conventional pharma and
biotech, they said.

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