US approves first cancer drug to use patient’s own cells – with $475,000 price tag
Novartis medication marketed as Kymriah treats most common type of childhood cancer, but some fear it could spur wave of highly expensive drugs
By Jessica Glenza in New York
Aug 30 2017
US regulators approved the first cancer drug that uses a patient’s own cells to fight cancer. But the drug is priced at $475,000.
Oncologists described the drug, made by Novartis and marketed as Kymriah, as revolutionary, but critics worried the first-of-its-kind cancer treatment could usher in a new class of ultra-expensive medications.
Kymriah will be a one-time, intravenous treatment patients receive after scientists at Novartis engineer a patient’s own immune cells (T-cells) to fight cancer. The drug will treat acute lymphocytic leukemia, the most common type of childhood cancer in the US.
Currently, standard treatments push about 85% of children into remissions of five years or longer, according to the American Cancer Society. Kymriah would treat patients who don’t respond to standard treatment, probably only a few hundred children and young adults per year.
“This is a brand new way of treating cancer,” said Dr Stephan Grupp of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who led the Novartis study. Grupp treated the first patient using the new immunotherapy procedure: a girl who was near death but is now cancer-free five years and counting. Grupp described the drug as “enormously exciting”.
Though the price may be shocking to many, analysts will probably view the $475,000 price tag as conservative. A British study suggested the “upper bound” for a drug like Kymriah could be $649,000.
Critics countered that the Novartis treatment, no matter how revolutionary, only proved drug pricing in America was “completely broken”.
“While Novartis’ decision to set a price at $475,000 per treatment may be seen by some as restraint, we believe it is excessive,” said David Mitchell, the president of Patients for Affordable Drugs. Mitchell said Novartis should not “get credit” for bringing an expensive drug to market “and claiming they could have charged people a lot more”.
Mitchell’s group met with Novartis the day before the drug’s approval – and price – was announced.
“Instead of a discussion about how to arrive at a fair price for its new CAR-T drug, Novartis spent most of the meeting explaining why it needs to charge an astronomical price,” Mitchell said.
In a conference call Wednesday, Bruno Strigini, Novartis’s head of oncology, said the $475,000 price was an attempt to balance patient access to the drug with ensuring a return on the company’s investment, Stat News reported.
The company’s CEO, Joseph Jimenez, said in a statement: “Five years ago, we began collaborating with the University of Pennsylvania and invested in further developing and bringing what we believed would be a paradigm-changing immunocellular therapy to cancer patients in dire need. With the approval of Kymriah, we are once again delivering on our commitment to change the course of cancer care.”