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Celgene CEO: Treating Cancer Is Becoming ‘Ironically Easy’ — Now the Problem Is Affordability

By October 30, 2018No Comments

Cancer treatments have improved astronomically in the past few decades. But as more patients overcome the disease, a different monster is rearing its head: financial toxicity.

“Most people today think about quality of life around cancer and wonder: ‘How do I afford the medicines that will keep me alive?’” said Mark Alles, the CEO and president of biotech company Celgene, which became the parent company of Seattle-based biotech company Juno Therapeutics earlier this year.

Speaking at the Life Science Washington Summit in Bellevue on Friday, Alles said the financial burden of treatment is eclipsing the biological challenges of treating cancer for many patients.

Actually treating the disease “is becoming, ironically, easy,” he said. But that won’t be enough to treat the full range of challenges cancer patients face.

“We can’t just solve for the biologic issue. We have to be solving holistically for what we are, in fact, achieving,” in other words, treating the whole patient, including their financial well being. “We’re not doing that well enough,” he said.

As healthcare costs in the U.S. have grown to the largest in the world, the financial burden of cancer treatment has also increased. Immunotherapies, a new branch of treatments that leverage the immune system to attack cancer, have been particularly effective in treating cancers that are difficult or impossible to survive, but they’ve also faced particular criticism for high prices.

One kind of immunotherapy, called CAR T therapy, comes with a jaw-dropping price tag: The two treatments on the market cost $475,000 and $373,000 respectively. They’ve also wiped out cancer in a significant number of patients who have no other option, up to 90 percent of patients in some trials.

Celgene made a strong move into this area with its $9 billion acquisition of Juno, a Seattle-based CAR T developer, in January. The Seattle region is now the center of the company’s immuno-oncology work.

Drug prices are a common talking point for the Trump Administration, which announced this week that it will seek to make drug companies charge the same cost for products in the U.S. as they do in other countries, where drug prices tend to be lower.