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How will we afford future cancer drugs?

23rd October 2008

New Scientist poses the question: How will we afford future cancer drugs?

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New cancer drugs have dramatically increased survival times but treatment costs have soared.

Costing thousands of dollars a year, they have consequently become a "flashpoint for anguished debate".

And if we are struggling to pay for the drugs today, how will we afford them in the future?

Cancer drugs are expensive because of the cost to pharmaceutical companies of development and conducting clinical trials, but there is also a tendency for manufacturers to name their price.

However, the cost of such trials could be reduced by recruiting only patients whose cancers have the right genetic profiles for a certain experimental drug but this not always happening.

There have also been problems when the drugs reach the doctor; notably with Herceptin which targets women with breast cancer cells with an over-abundance of the HER2 receptor.

Women whose tumours lack the mutation responsible cannot benefit but research in the US found 12% of recipients had not been tested, or had a negative result for the mutation.

Another way of reducing cost is changing how pharmaceutical companies are paid.

Last year, the NHS struck a novel deal with Janssen-Cilag over the multiple myeloma drug Velcade, with payment made only for those patients - about two-thirds - who respond well.

Politicians need to take a bold stance, particularly under the current economic climate, stop writing blank cheques to drug firms and pave the way for cheaper drugs.

Failure to do so will deny future clinical advances to increasing numbers of people with cancer.

 

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