Berenson's Missed Taxol Tackle

  • by: |
  • 10/03/2006
NYT Alex Berenson's recent article " Hope, at $4,200 a Dose" is a bit on the sloppy side when it comes to the facts.

He complains about the price of ABRAXANE which he correctly but not completely describes as "a reformulated version of paclitaxel, a chemical found in the Pacific yew tree that destroys cancer cells. "

To assert that the two products "have similar side effects" is incorrect. He could have looked (and he did) at a Sept 7 FDA Oncological Products Advisory Committee meeting transcript or the data from the clinical trial....both of which had the following language more or less ... Neutropenia on this study was greater for Taxol than it was for Abraxane even though 50 percent more paclitaxel was being administered to the Abraxane patients. This was highly statistically significant and was true whether you looked at all-grade toxicity or just focused on
Grade 4. "

Berenson makes a big deal of how the company that makes Abraxane -- Abraxis -- tried to get the FDA to approve the use of its drug for early stage breast cancer (just like Taxol) by claiming that Abraxane is just Taxol without the toxicities and can be administered more quickly at higher doses. The FDA did not buy that argument since the pharmacokinetics of the two products are completely different and approval of Abraxis in the metastatic setting required a small randomized controlled trial.

In any event, Berenson was trying to use Abraxis' words against them to underscore that generic Taxol costs $150 compared to Abraxane which $4200. And only Bravve Alex is willing to raise the tough question of whether it is worth it to pay $4200 for a drug that is really no different and doesn't increase survival -- the latter measure now being the new gold standard for reporters who want to trash cancer drugs -- all of them it should be noted do not have late stage cancer and it seems are single and don't have kids and spouses to worry about.

Setting aside the fact that it was the New York Times that helped lead the charge about how BMS was gouging the public when Taxol was going for $8000 a treatment cycle, especially because it got the drug at a preclinical stage through a partnership with NIH, the idea the only good cancer drug is a cheap one that adds ten years of life (median) when someone has the advanced form of the disease reflects callousness, misunderstanding or a political agenda or all three.

And to suggest that some public policy could step in to ratchet down prices for unique drugs (Berenson uses the voice of a 'patient' from the National Breast Cancer Coalition on this score) raises the question as to what that mechanism might be. We have seen what "works" in Cananda, the UK, Australia and the VA....just limiting who gets the drug based on some arbitrary criteria that has nothing to do with genomics, compassion or pain. And for Berenson's elightenment, here is what British oncologists had to say about the five years it took for the UK's rationing agency to finally approve of the use of Taxol in a metastatic setting:

"Some health authorities, despite the authoritative advice of leading cancer specialists, have held off from making full use of this licensed medicine . . . . It is regrettable that lives will have been lost while a medicine, which had already proven its clinical value, has had to pass through what is effectively a further approval system before being widely prescribed in the UK."

Now they are doing the same thing with Herceptin, Gleevec, etc.... using the same excuses put forth by Berenson and others. Maybe Carolina Hinestrosa of the National Breast Cancer Coalition would be interested in making the judgement about prices and rationing since she is so keen in finding a public policy mechanism....

Center for Medicine in the Public Interest is a nonprofit, non-partisan organization promoting innovative solutions that advance medical progress, reduce health disparities, extend life and make health care more affordable, preventive and patient-centered. CMPI also provides the public, policymakers and the media a reliable source of independent scientific analysis on issues ranging from personalized medicine, food and drug safety, health care reform and comparative effectiveness.

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