Amgen slaps record-breaking $178K price on rare leukemia drug Blincyto

We now have a new record price for cancer treatment. Amgen's ($AMGN) leukemia drug Blincyto, approved by the FDA this month to treat an uncommon form of the disease, will cost $178,000 per patient. It's the latest in a new round of expensive treatments, each of which seems to top the last.

Blincyto's price outranks that of any single cancer drug, with Merck's ($MRK) new immunotherapy Keytruda coming closest at $150,000 per year. Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY) recently unveiled its Japanese pricing for a Keytruda competitor Opdivo, at $143,000. Before that, Bristol-Myers' melanoma drug Yervoy, also an immunotherapy, was among the priciest in oncology, at $120,000.

Like all three of those drugs, Blincyto (blinatumomab) works by using the body's own immune cells to fight cancer. Unlike them, it's directed at a disease that affects a small number of patients, half of them children. Some 6,000 U.S. patients will be diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia this year, and as a second-line treatment, Amgen's drug will be indicated for only about 1,000 of them, Reuters notes.

In a trial with patients whose cancers hadn't responded to previous treatment, or whose cancer had come back, 32% showed no evidence of disease for at least 6 months. It's typically administered in two cycles of four weeks each, with each cycle running $89,000, Bloomberg reports. 

"We believe the price reflects the significant clinical, economic and humanistic value of the product to patients and the healthcare system, for an ultra-orphan population with a dramatic impact on a serious illness," spokeswoman Danielle Bertrand said in an emailed statement. "The price also reflects the complexity of developing, manufacturing and reliably supplying innovative biologic medicines and local pricing, reimbursement and purchasing conditions and requirements."

Then there are drugs designed to work in tandem, such as Roche's ($RHHBY) Perjeta ($71,000 per year), approved as an add-on to Herceptin ($54,000 per year). An 18-month treatment--the typical length, according to the company--with those two drugs carries a $188,000 price tag. And Roche's Genentech unit is studying Perjeta alongside the even newer Kadcyla, which runs $94,000 per treatment course, on average. More are to come, too, as companies study immunotherapies in combination; Amgen itself is testing its T-Vec cancer vaccine with Merck's Keytruda.

Don't expect sticker prices to come down anytime soon. To replace sales lost to the patent cliff, drugmakers have turned to rare disease drugs and other specialty treatments, which cost much more per dose than their previous blockbusters did. Spending on specialty treatments is skyrocketing, far outgrowing sales of other drug types. And even drugs directed at broad populations--such as hepatitis C--are expensive these days. There are signs of a payer backlash in the U.S., however, with pharmacy benefits managers and other gatekeepers refusing to pay for some drugs and forcing discounts on others.

So far, however, the high prices don't seem to be interfering much with marketing. Roche's Kadcyla and Perjeta both hit the market by storm, and Yervoy's first year out was spectacular. Merck and Bristol-Myers have justifiably high hopes for Keytruda and Opdivo. No doubt Amgen feels the same way about Blincyto.

- get more from Bloomberg
- see the Reuters story

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