Good Immunotherapy is Amazing at Treating Cancer — And It’s Unnecessarily Expensive

Drugs are cheap to produce — it’s things like unjust government-granted patent monopolies that allow pharmaceutical companies to charge exorbitant prices that make drugs expensive.

To quote economist Dean Baker’s latest October 2018 paper:

“Many items that sell at high prices as a result of patent or copyright protection would be free or nearly free in the absence of these government granted monopolies. Perhaps the most notable example is prescription drugs where we will spend over $420 billion in 2018 in the United States for drugs that would almost certainly cost less than $105 billion in a free market. The difference is $315 billion annually or 1.6 percent of GDP. If we add in software, medical equipment, pesticides, fertilizer, and other areas where these protections account for a large percentage of the cost, the gap between protected prices and free market prices likely approaches $1 trillion annually, a sum that is more than 60 percent of after-tax corporate profits.”

On to the article though.

Last week, researchers James Allison and Tasuku Honjo were awarded this year’s Nobel Prize in medicine for their work on cancer immunotherapies, heralded by the Nobel committee as “seminal discoveries” that “constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer.”

Immunotherapies like those developed on the basis of Allison and Honjo’s work are indeed an important step towards a whole new way to treat cancer, as well as a host of other chronic diseases. However, this Nobel award should remind us that these innovative therapies are out of reach for so many patients in the United States due to the exorbitant prices drug companies charge for them.

Just weeks before the Nobel announcement, oncologist Ezekiel Emmanuel wrote in a Wall Street Journal essay, “We Can’t Afford the Drugs That Could Cure Cancer,” that “a cure for cancer has become possible, even probable” with immunotherapies, but that our health system cannot afford their price tag. Just after the Nobel announcement, Vox reporter Julia Belluz reminded us that “the average cost of cancer drugs today is four times the median household income” (emphasis added).

Immunotherapies constitute a part of the class of drugs called biologics (as opposed to chemical pharmaceuticals) that have shown very promising results in treating many previously intractable conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, asthma, chronic pain, and Crohn’s disease, due to their ability to more precisely target individual diseased cells. Therefore it’s no surprise that currently most of the top 10 best-selling drugs worldwide are biologics.

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If biologics really are the future of medicine, we must change the way prescription drugs are priced in the United States, or millions of patients will be left behind. One way to do that is to invest in public pharmaceuticals that can assure an adequate supply of and equitable access to essential medications.