By: Sally Pipes
This year, 1.7 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer. For over 600,000 of them, that diagnosis will prove fatal.
But there’s hope on the horizon. More Americans are surviving cancer each year, according to a new study from the American Cancer Society. The cancer death rate declined precipitously between its peak in 1991 and 2016. Absent that decline, 2.6 million more cancer patients would have died during that period. By one estimate, 73% of recent survival gains are due to innovative new medicines.
Unfortunately, Republicans and Democrats alike have been floating proposals that could endanger the development of new cures by putting price controls on drugs. Such a move would discourage companies and investors from funding the groundbreaking and expensive research that has yielded blockbuster medicines that have saved millions of cancer patients’ lives.
Consider chronic myeloid leukemia, a deadly form of cancer that begins in the bone marrow. In the 1970s, more than three-quarters of those with the disease died within 5 years of being diagnosed. Today? Less than one-third.
A drug approved in 2001 called Gleevec deserves much of the credit for this decline. Developed by American researchers at both universities and pharmaceutical companies, the drug disrupts a specific cell function that can cause cancer.
Gleevec did more than radically increase survival rates for patients with chronic myeloid leukemia. It also sparked more research into targeted therapies, which have come to play an increasingly important role in cancer treatment.
Take “ antibody drug conjugates.” These targeted therapies are formed by attaching anti-cancer agents to antibodies. They seek out tumors in and around the bloodstream with greater precision and fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy. The FDA has thus far approved four antibody drug conjugates for cancer treatment — two for leukemia, one for lymphoma, and one for breast cancer.
New medicines are also attacking the root causes of cancer. For example, recently approved drugs can now cure hepatitis C, the viral infection responsible for one in four cases of liver cancer.
edical advancements like this work wonders for patients. But they don’t come easily. Bringing a new drug to market costs $2.6 billion and takes at least a decade. That’s largely because the vast majority of potential treatments don’t pan out. Eighty-six percent of drugs in development are never approved, according to an analysis of more than 400,000 clinical trial records conducted by researchers at MIT.
Between 1998 and 2014, only 12 medicines were approved to treat the hepatitis C virus by the FDA. During that same period, an additional 77 potential medicines for the hepatitis C virus failed in clinical trials.
Someone has to foot the bill for all this research. In America, it’s the private sector. Pharmaceutical companies spent more than $71 billion in research and development in 2017. The National Institutes of Health, for comparison, spends about $39 billion annually on medical research. The United States also accounts for almost 60% of global spending on pharmaceutical research and development.
Politicians from both parties seem intent on killing that research. Late last year, the Trump administration proposed an International Pricing Index that would tie Medicare reimbursement rates for drugs dispensed at doctor’s offices to the median price for those drugs across 14 foreign countries, most of which have price controls. Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Rep. Ro Khanna want to go even further — and levy price controls on all prescription drugs.
By preventing pharmaceutical companies from recouping their investments in R&D, plans like these would hinder drug development and deprive future patients of potentially lifesaving cures, including the more than 1,100 new vaccines and medicines for cancer currently being developed by American biopharmaceutical companies.
Lowering drug prices is an admirable goal. But doing so at the expense of future research is irresponsible and counterproductive. The proof is in our nation’s cancer survival rates, which, are climbing higher each day thanks to innovative medicines.
Barbara Jacoby is an award winning blogger that has contributed her writings to multiple online publications that have touched readers worldwide.