OPINION: Don’t put profits over curing cancer

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The medical community has moved one step forward in the fight against cancer with the FDA approval of what has been dubbed a “living drug.”

Novartis, an international pharmaceutical company, is marketing tisagenlecleucel as Kymriah. This revolutionary, single-use drug has the sole purpose of treating the most common pediatric cancer, acute lymphocytic leukemia.

The drug is personalized from patient to patient and involves a lengthy gene therapy process before it can be administered.

The patients will have a significant amount of their immune cells, or T-cells, extracted and sent to one of a few specialized labs. Once there, the cells will be genetically engineered to specifically target and hunt down cancer cells and other similar antigens.

These new cells, called CAR-T cells for short, are then multiplied millions of times and tested before being sent back to the patient.

In a clinical trial of 63 patients, 83 percent went into remission within three months, and 64 percent were still cancer-free an entire year after their treatment with Kymriah.

“This therapy is a significant step forward in individualized cancer treatment that may have a tremendous impact on patients’ lives,” Dr. Carl June, director of the Center for Cellular Immunotherapies in Penn’s Perelman school of medicine, said.

However, the drug comes with a hefty price tag of $475,000.

Critics argue that this is a further example of pharmaceutical companies profiting off of people being sick, but sources indicate it might in fact be underpriced. A “mock technology appraisal” by British health officials found that “a $649,000 price tag on the therapies would be justified for young patients.”

In a press statement, Joseph Jimenez, CEO of Novartis, touted the company’s history and hard work in paving a new frontier of cancer treatment.

“At Novartis, we have a long history of being at the forefront of transformative cancer treatment,” Jiminez said. “Five years ago, we began collaborating with the University of Pennsylvania and invested in further developing and bringing what we believed would be a paradigm-changing immunocellular therapy to cancer patients in dire need. With the approval of Kymriah, we are once again delivering on our commitment to change the course of cancer care.”

While this new drug is a modern scientific breakthrough, it is important to keep in mind that a lot of families might not be able to afford such an expensive drug. Yes, the drug could “justifiably” cost $649,000, but that does not mean it should, and it does not mean that a $475,000 price tag is acceptable either.

Any new medicine is undoubtedly going to cost more when it first enters the market and has little to no competition, but the Washington Post reports that there are more than 70 similar treatments currently being reviewed by the FDA, so competition is on the way.

However, there needs to be some morality and empathy for the children and young adults suffering from such an aggressive form of cancer. Treatments like this should not be treated as a luxurious commodity like expensive cars.

Most people have a choice as to what kind of car they want to buy or if they want to save their money for a few years to buy a Rolls Royce. Children with cancer do not have that luxury. They did not choose to have cancer and the decision to wait a couple of years may not be feasible.

These kids are profoundly unfortunate and the moral thing for pharmaceutical companies like Novartis to do would be providing these treatments as cheaply as possible. If not, we will not come anywhere close to winning the fight against cancer.

Caleb Snider is a junior in public relations. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Collegian. Please send comments to [email protected]

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