Cancer Survival: At What Price?

August 7th, 2009 | Sources: J. National Cancer Institute, Wall Street Journal

An editorial in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute has questioned the routine use of expensive cancer drugs that prolong lives by just weeks or months.

costofamonthoflifeNCI oncologist Tito Fojo and NIH ethicist Christine Grady called-out Erbitux as a particularly egregious example. An 18-week regimen of Bristol-Meyers Squibb’s cancer-fighter costs $80,000 and prolongs life by 1.2 months on average, they say.

“Many Americans would not regard a 1.2-month survival advantage as ‘significant’ progress,” the authors stated. “Would an individual patient disagree? The death of a mother of four at age 37 years would be no less painful were it to occur at age 37 years and 1 month, nor would the passing of a 67-year-old be any less difficult for the spouse were it to have occurred one month later.”

Complicating the debate is the fact that the drugs do work miracles in some patients, and it’s impossible to predict who will be so lucky.

“A drug like Erbitux is not very impressive when you look at the statistics, but for some it’s just remarkable,” Marti Nelson Cancer Foundation chief Robert Erwin told the Wall Street Journal. “How much does it cost for a person to have the opportunity to benefit?”

For their part, drug makers said the NCI article did not capture true costs of the cancer-fighters.  BMS spokesperson Brian Henry said the actual costs paid by patients for Erbitux is much less than $80,000.

“We can’t add on Mercedes-like drugs one after another and have every single patient cost the system phenomenal amounts of money,” said Eric Winer, chief scientific adviser to Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a breast-cancer advocacy group.

“But we have to be careful not to slow down the process of drug development. Ultimately, medical therapy will make a huge difference in people’s lives.”


 

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