So now we come (again) to the topic of cancer drug pricing. The New York Times ran an article on this the other day which has gotten a lot of attention. In it, Alex Berenson points out that prescriptions for the antibody therapies like Avastin and Erbitux cost a huge amount of money.
This isn't news, unfortunately. See this 2004 article by Matthew Herper in Forbes, for example, or see my posts from around that time here and here. What the NYT article makes much of, though, is what it says is a new rationale for the costs:
"Until now, drug makers have typically defended high prices by noting the cost of developing new medicines. But executives at Genentech and its majority owner, Roche, are now using a separate argument — citing the inherent value of life-sustaining therapies.
If society wants the benefits, they say, it must be ready to spend more for treatments like Avastin and another of the company's cancer drugs, Herceptin, which sells for $40,000 a year. . ."
You won't catch me disagreeing about the value of pharmaceuticals. But this argument can only be taken so far, because (as those links from two years ago make clear) drugs like Avastin really only add a few months of life. That's nothing to make light of, but I fear that it's also not much of a basis for Genentech and Roche to talk about how society should be willing to pay for such outcomes. Can you fix a price for two extra months of life? We're going to have to.
The NYT article has an excellent example of someone who's done the calculation for himself:
"Ellis Minrath, who has pancreatic cancer, said he had chosen not to take Tarceva, a drug from Genentech that is approved for lung cancer and has shown promise in pancreatic cancer. He did so after learning that it would cost him about $1,000 a month in co-payments, even though he is covered by Medicare.
"If anybody came out and said, 'By God, this is the stuff. You want to get well, find a way to buy it,' that would be one thing," said Mr. Minrath, who is 87. "But that isn't the case. The forecast of how much it's going to do is not that wonderful. . .
I agree with Mr. Minrath's decision, and I strongly endorse his right to make it. As an 87-year-old with pancreatic cancer, he seems to have studied his situation objectively and realized the odds he faces. He is very, very likely to die within the next few months, and (although we've never met) I'll be sorry to see him go, because he sounds extremely sensible. Personally - and I hope I never have to work this decision out for real - I would lean toward a similar "leave more for my heirs" position. Other patients in different situations may well come to different conclusions, and that's up to them (and in the real world, up to their insurance companies) as well.
What we need, of course, is some cancer drugs that don't make us put prices on months. I'd rather be working out the value of whole years or decades. Therapies which can do that will be the place to make the "society should suck it up" argument, but making it for Avastin and the like seems rather premature. What will we do when we find something that's good?