Survival with Sutent: A costly cancer 'miracle'

Ever wonder how the cancer drug Sutent made it to market? Barely, according to a behind-the-scenes piece from Bloomberg. The drug almost hit the R&D discard pile back in 2003, said Dr. George Demetri, an oncologist who was involved in testing it. It was a meeting with FDA officials encouraged by the data that got the drug back on track, Demetri said.

Sutent has gone on to prove effective for both kidney cancer and gastrointestinal stromal tumors--and to become one of the more expensive cancer drugs on the market at around $50,000. But even at that price, it's become key to a treatment approach known as daisy-chaining, in which patients use one drug until it stops working, then move on to another. Some patients have survived as long as seven years this way.

"Improving cancer survival rates are a real success story that sometime get lost in the noise over our healthcare system," Douglas Blayney, president of the American Society of Clinical Oncology, tells Bloomberg. "Targeted drugs are driving that survival in a major way."

Is paying for that survival sustainable? In Sutent's case at least, even the U.K.'s cost watchdog thinks so; the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence finally OK'd the drug after Pfizer agreed to pay for the first cycle of treatment, which should weed out the patients who just won't respond to the drug at all.

But taken together with other expensive therapies, some experts doubt that society can keep paying for such costly treatment. "All the recent health policy talk is that in the U.S. we don't ration, but that isn't a true statement," said UnitedHealth Group's SVP Lee Newcomer. "We just keep pricing more and more people out of the ability to afford health insurance."

- read the Bloomberg story