Cancer Rx Prices Too High!

Leukemia drug costs are affecting patient care experts contend

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) Today, people with chronic myeloid leukemia (CML) are leading pretty much normal lives. They can thank a variety of medications for being alive.

And while their physical outlook is dramatically better, these medicines are delivering a blow to their financial well-being.

A group of 120 CML experts from around the world has declared that spiraling CML medication prices are “unsustainable” and should be lowered. 

Price alone may be interfering with CML patients’ ability to buy and take their medications as prescribed, the authors suggested. This inability to take medicines may be affecting the survival of these patients.

"Ask your pharmacist about Rx financial assistance."

The experts from 15 countries on five continents chose to look at CML because it is considered a highly curable disease with the advent of target therapies called tyrosine kinase inhibitors (TKIs).

The study’s corresponding author, Hagop Kantarjian, MD, chairman of the leukemia department at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, acknowledged that CML survivors have an improved outlook because of these medicines.

“But these patients now face dire financial struggles as they try to maintain their treatment regimen with the drastically inflating cost of care. And this issue likely extends to patients with other types of cancer who require ongoing treatment to maintain therapeutic benefit," Dr. Kantarjian said in a press release.

Since the introduction of the first TKI, Gleevec (imatinib), in 2001, the 10-year CML survival has quadrupled, increasing from 20 percent to 80 percent. 

That’s the great news. The troubling news is that the price of Gleevec has also more than tripled since its introduction.

In 2001, Gleevec was priced at $2,200 a month or $30,000 a year, which was in line with the price of the other standard of care at the time – interferon.

In 2012, Gleevec cost $92,000 a year.

Last year, of the 12 cancer therapies approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), 11 were priced at more than $100,000 a year.

Three new CML drugs were among those that gained FDA approval, and all have very hefty price tags:

  • Bosulif (bosulitinib) – $118,000/year
  • Synribo (omacetraxine) – $28,000 for induction and $14,000 for maintenance
  • Iclusig (ponatinib) – $138,000/year

"Since CML treatments must be taken on an ongoing basis, we are concerned that the surging prices are potentially harming patients," Dr. Kantarjian said.

Previous research has suggested that about 10 percent of patients do not take their medications as prescribed, primarily because of cost concerns.

While the survival rates for CML have improved over the past decade, they are not as high as the survival rates in Sweden, the authors pointed out.

CML is not the only cancer with high medication costs. Other cancer treatments that extend life by only a few months can cost the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars per month.

Medical economist Adam C. Powell, PhD, president of Payer+Provider Syndicate, told dailyRx News, “Setting the price of life-saving drugs is always a difficult task. The problem is made even more daunting when there are no obvious substitutes for the drugs, and the population impacted is rather small.

“While compliance and demand would likely be higher under lower prices, additional research is needed to determine whether forcibly reducing the cost of cancer care is socially optimal in the long-term,” Dr. Powell said.

The findings, statements and opinions of the CML experts were published April 25 in Blood, the Journal of the American Society of Hematology (ASH). 

No funding information was provided. Dr. Kantarjian has research grants from MBS, Novartis, Ariad and Pfizer. He is also an unpaid consultant for Novartis, the maker of Gleevec.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
April 28, 2013
Last Updated:
November 7, 2013