Shiny, new and expensive: ESMO studies find new cancer drugs carry higher prices, add little benefit

As the annual European Society of Clinical Oncology Congress gets underway in Barcelona, researchers said new cancer drugs often fail to justify their costs. (Pixabay)

Recent years have brought advancements in cancer care as well as higher drug prices. Now, two studies show prices are outpacing improvements to care.

Released as the annual European Society of Clinical Oncology Congress kicks off in Barcelona, the studies found many new cancer drugs “add little value” for patients compared with existing drugs—but their prices are significantly higher.

The investigators looked at drugs launched over the last 10 to 15 years for solid tumors and tallied their benefits over older meds. They used several value-assessment tools, including those produced by ESMO and the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO).

The first study looked at drugs approved in Europe between 2004 and 2017, finding that almost half earned low “added value” scores on the ESMO Magnitude of Clinical Benefit Scale, or ESMO-MCBS. More than two-thirds of the meds earned low scores when measured by a tool French regulators use, the Added Therapeutic Benefit Ranking.  

And the new meds weren't cheap. On average, they were €2,525 more expensive—per month—than existing meds for the same cancer types, the researchers said.

“Most of the new cancer drugs had low added value, so doctors and patients shouldn’t assume that just because a drug is new, it’s going to be better,” co-author Marc Rodwin said in a statement. Rodwin said there was a link between cost and added value, but that the link was “weak.” 

The second study reviewed drugs for solid tumors in adults approved in four European countries and the U.S. between 2009 and 2017. The researchers found “no link” between cost and clinical benefit on two scales, ESMO-MCBS and the ASCO Value Framework. The median prices in Europe were less than half of those in the U.S., the researchers report.

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While the studies are sure to add to the ongoing drug price debate, Medical University of Vienna oncology expert Barbara Kiesewetter said in a statement the findings can also benefit doctors and patients on a daily basis as they consider treatment options.

“The ESMO-MCBS is very easy to use, and anyone can go online to check the scores of cancer drugs, and understand the factors that are used to grade the clinical benefit of medicines,” she said. “It’s very important to have this validated score not only for daily decision-making but to influence reimbursement decisions and reduce treatment disparities.” 

The studies are set to be presented at the ESMO Congress 2019 on Sunday and Monday. They’ll be among a vast amount of research presented at the massive oncology conference in Barcelona demonstrating how cancer drugs are progressing.

While the studies will allow critics to further scrutinize pharma's pricing, industry backers argue advancements in care come over time and that R&D is a high-risk business.