Will anything ever curb the runaway growth in the cost of breakthrough cancer drugs?
Eleven years ago, I wrote about a Memorial Sloan Kettering oncologist named Leonard Saltz who, after helping to develop some of the most important drugs for colon cancer, had gotten a bad case of sticker shock. The new breakthroughs were simply too expensive, he insisted. "Sooner or later the bubble is going to pop," he told me.
He was dead wrong. As 29% of my life so far passed by, two things changed: the new cancer medicines got more promising, and they got way more expensive. So there I was yesterday listening to him give a blistering talk on high cancer drug prices to thousands of oncologists at the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.
The prices will make your nose bleed. Take the exciting new medicines that unleash the immune system against tumors. A combination of two Bristol-Myers Squibb BMY +2.91%drugs dramatically shrank melanoma. By Saltz's calculations, that will cost $295,566 for the average patient. Merck 's immune system drug Keytruda showed promise in colorectal, gastric, and esophageal tumors. But if doctors adopted the 10-milligram-per-kilogram dose of Keytruda used in several New England Journal of Medicine papers, it would cost $1,000,000 to treat a 165-pound patient.
Saltz is an evangelist, and it's possible to take issue with his numbers. He uses an average selling price for the Bristol drugs; using their list prices gives a figure closer to $280,000, and we could discount it as much as 30% because so many patients have to stop the treatments because of side effects. (In one demonstration of how great these drugs are, many of those patients still get a benefit as their immune systems continue to attack their cancer.)