Docs call drugmakers 'profiteers' for costs of cancer meds

Sanofi ($SNY) is not very popular among its peers today. Its decision last year to halve the cost of its colon cancer drug Zaltrap in the face of high-profile criticism has inspired more than a 100 top docs from around the world to protest the astronomical costs of cancer drugs, calling the prices immoral and tagging drugmakers as profiteers. 

The rising prices of cancer treatments has been a flashpoint in healthcare for a few years. India has canceled patents on some of the priciest medicines, and cost regulators in Europe are now balking at the cost to efficacy ratios of some meds. But this is the first time that so many top physicians in the West have banned together to make the case against cancer meds, and they did it with very strong language, reports The New York Times. "Pharmaceutical companies have lost their moral sense," Dr. Hagop M. Kantarjian, the lead author of the piece told the Times. Kantarjian is chairman of the leukemia department at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. 

The doctors called out as an example, Novartis' ($NVS) Gleevec, a treatment for chronic myeloid leukemia. They pointed out that it came on the market at a cost of $30,000 a year in 2001 and now runs three times that even though it now has competition. Novartis responded that it recognizes "that sustainability of healthcare systems is a complex topic and we welcome the opportunity to be part of the dialogue." It pointed out that few patients pay the full price of the drug. 

Some drugmakers were surprised at the attack, given that Gleevec and some other cancer drugs are considered "miracle drugs" that have turned once-lethal cancers into something akin to chronic diseases. But it is their own effectiveness that is part of the issue because it means patients have the choice of paying the high, ongoing expense, or dying. The physicians also noted that in the U.S., survival rates have not been what would be expected, suggesting some patients may not be taking the drug because they can't afford even the co-pay charges.

There has been a loud refrain in India against exorbitant prices for lifesaving drugs. That country has been criticized by drugmakers and looked at as backward for allowing generics of some drugs that manufacturers believe should be protected by patents, including Gleevec. But there appears to be a rising concern in the U.S. where the drugs often cost twice what they do elsewhere. Sanofi was caught off guard last fall when three doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center announced in the New York Times that the hospital wouldn't be using Zaltrap. They said at $9,600 a month, it was more expensive than other drugs they were already using, so why should they use it? Citing "market resistance" Sanofi quickly responded by announcing discounts it said would cut the price of Zaltrap in half.

- read The New York Times story