How much are cancer drugs worth that may only prolong a patient’s life by a few weeks? It’s a pressing question given the rising cost of medicines, and one that a pair of National Institutes of Health researchers is urging cancer specialists to tackle now.

NIH’s Tito Fojo, who works on experimental cancer therapies, and Christine Grady, a bioethicist, call upon oncologists and the government to figure out when a costly cancer drug is worth prescribing and when it is not, saying, “We cannot ignore the cumulative costs of the tests and treatments we recommend and prescribe.”

The pair’s recent commentary in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute takes a look at drugs like Erbitux, a supplemental drug for the treatment of non-small cell lung cancer. Erbitux costs about $80,000 for 18 weeks of treatment, they write, while only prolonging life by an average of 1.2 months. The drug also carries side effects.

So is the money spent on Erbitux worthwhile? The paper outlines potential standards for oncologists to apply in assessing the value of a drug before writing a prescription.

Fojo and Grady have company in raising the cost issue.  Colorectal cancer specialist Leonard Saltz, from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, elaborates on the problem in a recent interview with CurrentMedicine.TV.  The cost of new treatments has snuck up on practitioners but now needs to be dealt with head-on, he says.

“The problem is that none of the [new] drugs do what they set out to do, which is replace that which came before them,” Saltz explains. “They get added to the mix,” he says, and drive up costs without necessarily showing an adequate benefit.

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