The Costly War on Cancer

Captured by The Economist

CANCER is not one disease. It is many. Yet oncologists have long used the same blunt weapons to fight different types of cancer: cut the tumour out, zap it with radiation or blast it with chemotherapy that kills good cells as well as bad ones.

New cancer drugs are changing this. Scientists are now attacking specific mutations that drive specific forms of cancer. A breakthrough came more than a decade ago when Genentech, a Californian biotech firm, launched a drug that attacks breast-cancer cells with too much of a certain protein, HER2. In 2001 Novartis, a Swiss drugmaker, won approval for Gleevec, which treats chronic myeloid leukaemia by attacking another abnormal protein. Other drugs take different tacks. Avastin, introduced in America in 2004 by Genentech, starves tumours by striking the blood vessels that feed them. (Roche, another Swiss drug giant, bought Genentech and its busy cancer pipeline in 2009.)

These new drugs sell well. Last year Gleevec grossed $4.3 billion. Roche’s Herceptin (the HER2 drug) and Avastin did even better: $6 billion and $7.4 billion respectively. Cancer drugs could rescue big drugmakers from a tricky situation: more than $50 billion-worth of wares will lose patent protection in the next three years.

This month Pfizer, an American company, announced that America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) would speed up its review of a cancer drug called crizotinib. Roche submitted an FDA application for a new medicine, vemurafenib. The industry is pouring money into clinical trials for cancer drugs (see chart).

This is part of a shift in how big drug firms do business. For years they have relied on blockbusters that treat many people. Now they are investing in more personalised medicine: biotech drugs that treat small groups of patients more effectively. Read more…

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