Harvard, Tufts med students stage protest at 'biased' $2.9B drug development figure

Tufts' Joseph DiMasi

Around two dozen students from Harvard Medical School and Tufts University as well as members of health activist groups protested in front of the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development claiming new figures suggesting bringing a new drug to market costs nearly $3 billion came from a "biased" report.

Their beef was primarily with Joseph DiMasi, an associate professor and director of economic analysis at Tufts, who co-authored a paper stating that it now costs $2.87 billion (in 2013 dollars) for a biopharma company to research and sell a new drug--more than double the amount he claimed it cost back in 2007 when he co-wrote a paper suggesting it was $1.2 billion (in 2005 dollars).

"DiMasi's figures are used by pharmaceutical companies to preserve the status quo and their bottom line," a release from the protesters said. They are asking for him to now reveal any and all funding he gains from the industry, saying it conflicts with his research and is making his judgments biased.

DiMasi said in a statement to the Harvard Crimson that the studies do not imply an association between research expenses and the high cost of drugs.

"Our paper not only does not explicitly link [R&D] costs to price setting; it does not do so implicitly either."

Kenneth Kaitin, the center's director and a professor at Tufts, told the Crimson it was not the center's policy to disclose specific names of pharmaceutical companies.

"If there was a question about who supports the CSDD I think that that is adequately described, not only in the paper he published, but on our website, so I'm not sure what else is required."

There has been a long history when it comes to research costs, with widely different variations on just what it costs in dollar terms to bring a drug from its first days in the lab to being marketed--a process that had traditionally taken around 12-15 years, although some biopharma firms are now bringing this down by half for certain medicines.

Prof. Pete Gøtzsche of the Nordic Cochrane Centre wrote a controversial piece for The BMJ back in 2013 citing a 2002 study which claimed the true cost was estimated to be below $100 million. He wrote: "These [higher figure] estimates are false and build on seriously flawed methods, including debatable accounting theory. They are premised on blind faith in the confidential information supplied by the drug industry to its economic consultants at two universities who were paid by the same industry to do the job."

Meanwhile in the U.K., the pharma trade group the ABPI believes the figure to be around $1.6 billion, given the higher rates of failure seen in later-stage trials of riskier medicines over the past decade, which is adding to the overall cost of bringing a drug to market.

And the U.S. trade group PhRMA released its latest figures last year suggesting the cost was in fact $2.6 billion on average. It seems that the figure is based entirely on who is calculating and what they are taking into consideration, but there is as yet no single defined average figure.

The Tufts protest was part of a larger movement aimed at Big Pharma called "Pharma Fools Day," with protests taking place in 12 cities across the world, including London, Johannesburg, Sydney and New Delhi, according to movement's website.

"The overall message [of all the protests] is that pharmaceutical company greed is killing patients," Justin Mendoza, a new ACT UP member, told the Crimson. ACT UP organized the protests with support from more than 25 other health advocacy groups.

The protest has zeroed in on the ever-controversial research cost figure, but a broader anger at Big Pharma was the larger order of the day, with protesters allegedly singing antipharma slogans. This all comes as the ethics of the industry is being ever more loudly called into question by politicians and the public.

- read the Harvard Crimson's take

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