NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


July 11, 2006

Some doctors are questioning whether targeted therapies -- designed to turn cancer into a chronic disease by silencing growth signals inside malignant cells -- are worth the expense to individuals and taxpayers, says Liz Szabo in USA Today.

Most new cancer drugs improve survival by only a few weeks or months, says researcher Leonard Saltz of New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and they all have one thing in common, they're incredibly expensive.  For example:

  • Gleevec, a cancer therapy pill, costs $3,100 a month.
  • Erbitux, a therapy pill used with chemotherapy, costs almost $10,000 a month.

While Gleevec has shown success, experts say few of the new "targeted" therapies, including Erbitux, come close to that ideal.  "There is a real question whether insurance ought to pay for a drug like that," says Ezekial Emanuel, chairman of clinical bioethics at the National Institutes of Health clinical center.  "If you pay for something that doesn't have a big impact, you could lose out on treatments that really do work.

Canada has decided that Erbitux isn't worth the money. Last month, Bristol-Myers Squibb Canada announced that it won't sell Erbitux there because it couldn't get "an appropriate price for its product reflecting the value of the innovation it brings."

But others, such as David Johnson, former president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, remain optimistic about targeted therapies, in spite of their high prices. A handful of his lung cancer patients have done remarkably well on Tarceva, another targeted pill, he says, although patients overall live only two months longer than those on placebos.

Source: Liz Szabo, "Cost of cancer drugs crushes all but hope," USA Today, July 11, 2006

For text (subscription required):


Browse more articles on Health Issues