The 'amazing' cancer treatment that costs $100,000

A slew of new drugs are powerfully effective at fighting cancer. But should they be priced beyond reach?

The large, two-nuclei cell i(center) is a characteristic of Hodgkin's lymphoma: The FDA approved a new drug specifically targeted to this type of cancer for the first time in nearly 35 years.
(Image credit: Lester V. Bergman/CORBIS)

A new cancer drug developed by Seattle Genetics has medical experts swooning over its ability to fight two hard-to-beat kinds of lymphoma, anaplastic large cell lymphoma (ALCL) and Hodgkin's lymphoma. But the drug, Adcentris, costs a whopping $13,500 per dose, and a full cycle of treatment can run upwards of $100,000 per patient. Will sky-high prices for this and other new drugs keep them from delivering the miracles physicians and patients dream of? Here, a brief guide:

Is the drug really that powerful?

Yes, according to researchers. Adcentris delivers "amazing" results in patients whose lymphoma is resistant to other forms of treatment, including chemotherapy, says Dr. Anas Younes of MD Anderson Cancer Center, as quoted in Medscape Medical News. Adcentris is the first new drug approved for Hodgkin's lymphoma in almost 35 years, and the first drug ever that specifically targets ALCL.

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Why is it so expensive?

Drug development costs are part of the problem. "Seattle Genetics went more than $546 million into debt creating this drug, and naturally they'd like to get some of that cash back," says Curtis Cartier in the Seattle Weekly. And while the company claims to have a program to help poor patients get access to Adcentris, there's no mention of "middle-class patients who don't have $100,000 lying around."

Aren't other new treatments also costly?

Yes, and it's becoming a frightening trend. Earlier this year, the FDA approved Bristol-Myers Squibb's new drug Yervoy for patients with melanoma, a deadly skin cancer. But a course of treatment with Yervoy costs about $120,000. A few weeks ago, the FDA approved another melanoma drug, Zelboraf, by drugmaker Roche, which costs about $56,400 for a six-month course of treatment.

Who's doing something about such high drug costs?

Wall Street, surprisingly. "Seattle Genetics' decision to price Adcetris north of $100,000 seems to be causing some concern in the investment community," says Morningstar analyst Lauren Migliore in Reuters. Other expensive drugs, like Provenge, a prostate cancer vaccine developed by drugmaker Dendreon, have failed to live up to investors' sales expectations: A course of Provenge costs about $93,000, and many insurance plans won't reimburse doctors for expensive brand-name drugs. As a result, Dendreon recently "lost two-thirds of its market value" due to sluggish sales.

Sources: Medscape, Reuters, Seattle Weekly, WebMD

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