The drugmakers are widely attacked, occasionally for good cause–such as when they spend millions of dollars promoting Obamacare. But when they are good, they are very good. Like looking for cancer cures.
Virtually every large pharmaceutical company seems to have discovered cancer, and a substantial portion of the smaller biotechnology companies are focused on it as well. Together, the companies are pouring billions of dollars into developing cancer drugs.
Two industry trends are driving the push. Recent scientific discoveries have suggested new targets for cancer drug researchers to attack. And as drug companies see profits beginning to wane from mainstays like Lipitor, the high prices that cancer drugs can command have become an irresistible lure.
About 860 cancer drugs are being tested in clinical trials, according to the pharmaceutical industry’s main trade group. That is more than twice the number of experimental drugs for heart disease and stroke combined, nearly twice as many as for AIDS and all other infectious diseases combined, and nearly twice as many as for Alzheimer’s and all other neurological diseases combined.
But for all the industry’s spending and effort, only a trickle of new cancer drugs make it to market. Last year there were two, and this year there has been only one.
And even some of those drugs offer only a few months at most of extra life or tumor stabilization despite prices that often reach thousands of dollars a month. The drug Tarceva, which costs about $3,500 a month, was approved as a treatment for pancreatic cancer because it improved survival by 12 days.
The battle to treat cancer has become, as a commentary in a leading journal put it, a “grinding war of the trenches.”
Why? Experts say the same factors that attract drug companies to the cancer business help explain the slow progress.
Finding new drugs is expensive. The cost is not primarily that of production, but of discovery–including the expense of all the many dry holes drilled along the way. We all would prefer to pay less for drugs, but government price controls under whatever guise risk killing the golden goose, slowing the supply of new products which just might be the medicine which save our life, or that of a relative or friend.