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Crippling disease or crippling debt?

22 February 2013

A new generation of anti-caner therapies are truly marvels of science and engineering, with a hefty price tag.

As reported today by the New York Times, a new anti-breast cancer drug was approved today by the United States FDA. T-DM1 (Kadcyla) is a monoclonal antibody (Herceptin) attached to a toxic payload of mertansine (DM-1).

I could go on for a long time about the technological achievements that have gone into creating monoclonal antibody-based drugs, such as the 1984 Nobel Prize in Medicine, but the bottom line is that, in general, monoclonal antibody-based drugs:

Pro: Highly specific (i.e. it’s possible to have few side effects if the target and patients are chosen wisely)

Con: Must be administered intravenously, must be stored and transported with extreme care, and are extremely EXPENSIVE

The NY Times reports:

“Genentech, which developed the drug, said it would cost about $9,800 a month, or $94,000 for a typical course of treatment. That is about twice the price of Herceptin itself, which is also made by Genentech, but it is similar to the price of some other new cancer drugs. It is approved for patients with HER2-positive breast cancer, about 20 percent of cases.”

There are many more monoclonal antibody-based cancer therapies in the works. In May the NY Times reported that:

“About 25 such drugs from a variety of companies are in clinical trials, according to Alain Beck, a French pharmaceutical researcher who closely tracks the field. Genentech alone has eight in clinical trials besides T-DM1, and another 17 in earlier stages of development.”

The good news is that technological advances like these are slowly making cancer treatable, but I can’t help but wonder if the high price tag of these therapies will put them out of reach for all but society’s wealthiest.

Imagine the dilemma of a family faced with living with crippling disease or crippling debt. I will spare you my diatribe about our for-profit health system and the ethics of profiting off of society’s most sick and disenfranchised. But, this is a discussion that EVERYONE should be having now. Because, sooner or later, most of us WILL have to face this dilemma, either individually or within our families.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could prevent more cancer in the first place? It’s something I spend a lot of time thinking about…

Ok, back to the research bench. Have a nice weekend! (hopefully with exercise and sunscreen!)


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