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New class of cancer drug treatments shrink tumors, but will the treatment be too expensive?

"Immunotherapies" -- An exciting class of new cancer drugs may increase survival, but their use may be limited by their cost.  These drugs are a type of immune system boosters that some believe will become the main treatment for more than half of all cancers in the next 10 years. They included drugs from Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck & Co that shrank tumors in patients with advanced cancers.  The new, targeted immunotherapy drug known as MPDL3280A was able to shrink several different types of cancer, including lung, melanoma, kidney, colorectal, and stomach cancers.  These results were found even in patients whose cancer had worsened while receiving other treatments. Immunotherapy is designed to boost the body’s natural defenses to fight the cancer. 

A major obstacle is the cost of these drugs.  In the United States, these immunotheraputic drugs will have a price tag of about $100,000 for one patient for one year.  Dr. Antoni Ribas from the University of California, Los Angeles Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center said the most costly part of cancer care is later in the disease when patients are months from dying. "Even if it looks like we're developing expensive agents, these will eventually be cheap, because it's actually treating people," he said.

Insurers are becoming less willing to pay for interventions and are requiring more pre-reviews of treatments.  Four-fifths of U.S. health insurers recently polled by consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers now require evidence of cost savings or a clear clinical benefit to include new products on their lists of covered drugs.  At the same time, patients are already being asked to share a greater portion of costs, often through higher cost premiums, co-payments or higher deductibles.  In fact, clinical oncologists are not doing a good job of discussing costs of treatment with their patients.  A Duke University Medical Center study found that oncologists rarely discuss costs with patients, even though the patients said they wanted to discuss costs and despite the fact that many of the patients were already financially distressed.  In the study, 48 percent of the cancer patients said they wanted to discuss costs with their doctor, but only 21 percent actually had that discussion.  

It is important to note that information appearing on this website is not intended as medical advice or as a substitute for the treating physician's own professional judgment; nor does it imply endorsement of any product or company. In addition, some treatments discussed in these articles are not yet available to the general public.