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1,100% generic cancer drug price increases fly below UK radar

Published on 30/01/17 at 03:48pm

If you were asked what the big topic of discussion in the pharmaceutical industry was last year, there would really have only been one answer: drug pricing. The questionable behaviour of companies such as Turing Pharmaceutical, Valeant and Mylan caused a furore. It’s a discussion that the industry is hoping will die down, but that will not be helped by the latest research that was presented at the European Cancer Congress into the price of generic cancer drugs.

Two researchers, Dr Andrew Hill, senior research fellow in pharmacology and therapeutics at the University of Liverpool, and Melissa Baber, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, investigated the price of generic cancer medicine available on the NHS.

The results found that, of 89 cancer medicines studied, 21 were shown to have increased in price through the years 2011 to 2016. The biggest price increase was found to be busulfan, for the treatment of chronic myeloid leukaemia, which increased from 21p for 2mg, in 2011, to £2.61, in 2016 – totally an increase of 1,143%.

Other price increases were less dramatic, but no less significant – with 14 other generic cancer treatments having their prices raised over 100%.

This is of concern because the price of drugs are expected to remain reasonably close to the baseline cost of production; as generic drugs have no patents in place, competition should encourage prices to remain stable and low. However, the study found that the price increases were  often in generic drugs that had little competition and could therefore raise the price without fear of being undercut.

“We hope that, by explaining what we have found in the UK, other European countries will take note and protect themselves against these kinds of price rises,” says Dr Hill. “At a time when cancer patients are living longer and better lives due to effective treatments, this situation is particularly worrying.”

He continued, “For example, tamoxifen, used to treat breast cancer, can be manufactured for less than two US dollars per month of treatment, and imatinib, used in the treatment of chronic myeloid leukaemia, can be produced for $54 per month”.

The Health Services Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill, which will allow the NHS to regulate prices in the future, is currently progressing through parliament. It will allow the NHS to have more power in relation to pricing, being able to refer any price increases to the Competition and Markets Authority if behaviour is regarded as suspicious.

The defence of the price increases runs along the lines that such price increases are necessary to continue manufacturing the drugs at a profit.

The reason that the current price increases have escaped notice until now is because the drugs that have been questioned are so old and without patent protection that it has been assumed that their prices would remain relatively low.

Ben Hargreaves


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