ASCO presentations portend future shock of immunotherapy drug prices

This weekend a slate of biopharma companies will be presenting new data at ASCO, underscoring the big new role that immunotherapy drugs will be playing in the fight against cancer. In part, that's because of the success of Yervoy, which sells for $40,000 a month. Now Bristol-Myers Squibb ($BMY), Merck ($MRK) and others believe they have a key to further advances in a variety of cancers. And that's raising some big questions about the impact these drugs will have in a market that is feeling the impact of six-figure oncology treatments.

Bristol-Myers Squibb is one of the leaders in this movement. Two years after it gained an approval for Yervoy, the drug developer is back with a closely watched combo that adds nivolumab to the mix. The drug targets the PD-1 cloaking device, opening up a fresh T-cell attack on a variety of solid tumors. The FDA has put it on the agency's fast track for melanoma, lung and kidney cancer.

These new therapies will likely add considerably to the cost of care. As they rescue a growing number of patients from an early death, they'll also become chronic disease therapies that could be needed for years to come. A Nature article picks up on the cost trend, noting that cancer drug costs are rising at 15% a year, twice the rate of overall healthcare inflation. That's likely to make these drugs a lightning rod for private and public payers looking to contain the cost of healthcare in the U.S.

"Cancer is a very complicated and expensive disease," Scott Ramsey, a healthcare economist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, tells Nature. "But now it's turning into a chronic disease, and we're talking about years of maintenance therapy with drugs that cost $10,000 a month."

Jedd Wolchok, an oncologist at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, is presenting data on the Yervoy/nivolumab combo. And he tells Nature that the price of these drugs could fall as they get approved for a growing number of cancer types. But there are plenty of analysts who don't see that happening anytime soon.

- here's the story from Nature

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