Big Pharma continues to be the poster child for why so many people don't trust corporate America. It's the epitome of putting greed above all, even the sick and dying.
Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the department of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, of all places, that thousands of cancer patients could be cured, but they won't be because society can't afford the drugs that could cure them.
Emanuel pointed out that back when he was training to become an oncologist, the dream was to cure cancer.
"Today, advances in cellular immunotherapy make it no longer a dream: A cure for cancer has become possible, even probable," he wrote in the journal's Saturday Review section last month. "But tragically, the costs of these drug therapies are so high that the American health care system can't afford them."
The cancer treatment breakthroughs include removing a patient's own immune cells and genetically re-engineering them to bind on a specific protein on the surface of the patient's cancer cells. When infused into the patient, those cells attack only those cancer cells with the protein and spare the normal cells, which treatments like chemotherapy do not. The treatment is simply called CAR-T.
The doctor explained that there are currently 400 ongoing clinical trials using the CAR-T method. About two-thirds of children with acute leukemia and about a third of adults with lymphoma and leukemia appear to have been cured. The medical field is optimistic CAR-T can be adopted to attack other cancers such as breast and lung.
The catch, though, is that CAR-T's list price is between $373,000 and $475,000 per patient. When the costs of doctors and hospitals are added in, the treatment rises to between $500,000 and $800,000. Emanuel explains that if CAR-T were used to treat 250,000 cancer patients per year (roughly 40 percent of the number who die from the disease every year) it would add $93 billion, or from $300 to $500 per American, to the country's already out-of-control health care costs.
As is always the case, the big drug companies (Novartis and Gilead Sciences in this case) justify the high costs because of the tens of millions spent on research and development. CAR-T, Novartis says, cost the corporation about a billion dollars to develop.
Dr. Emanuel, however, points out that treating just 2,700 patients at the price the pharmaceutical giant is asking would recoup that billion-dollar investment and in an estimated 10 years produce $8.5 billion for its coffers.
Novartis and Gilead Sciences are far from alone in this never-ending scheme to take advantage of the sick and vulnerable, those willing to turn over their fortunes for a chance to go on living. In recent years we've seen some pharmaceuticals gain a monopoly on a popular drug — EpiPen anyone? — and increase prices by astronomical amounts. EpiPen went from about $55 a dose to more than $600 practically overnight.
Just a few weeks ago, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America was caught trying to sneak a $4 billion windfall for pharmacy corporations into the bill that is supposed to address America's deadly opioid crisis — a crisis, incidentally, that many insist was generated by questionable tactics by Big Pharma itself.
The bill, still pending in Congress, is designed to give senior citizens discounts on medicines they require when they fall into Medicare Part D's infamous "doughnut hole." It was estimated that that provision would have saved Medicare about $7 billion, but later estimates raised that to $11 billion.
Big Pharma decided that it deserved that money, not the senior citizens and Medicare, and tried to amend the bill to lower the discount. AARP and Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota cried foul and others vowed to make sure the reduction doesn't make it into the bill.
Greed knows no bounds in the pharmaceutical world. They're going to get their share plus billions more even if folks need to die to make it happen.
Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. email@example.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel.
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