Source: Bloomberg
Author: Lisa Rapaport

Eli Lilly & Co.’s tumor-fighter Erbitux doesn’t prolong lung cancer patients’ lives enough to justify its $80,000 cost, U.S. scientists said in commentary published today.

Erbitux added to other cancer drugs extends survival about 1.2 months more than chemotherapy alone, making the price too high for a “marginal benefit,” commentary in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute said. Erbitux, which Lilly markets with Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., generated $1.3 billion last year as treatment approved for other malignancies.

The high price of some of the newest cancer medicines are coming under scrutiny as part of an effort by lawmakers and health officials to rein in overall medical costs. President Barack Obama has set aside $1.1 billion in the U.S. economic stimulus bill to study the comparative effectiveness of treatments for cancer and other diseases.

“We must avoid the temptation to tell a patient that a new drug is available if there is little evidence that it will work better than established drugs that could be offered at a miniscule fraction of the cost,” wrote the commentators, Tito Fojo with the National Cancer Institute and Christine Grady at the National Institutes of Health.

Lilly, of Indianapolis, and marketing partner Bristol- Myers, of New York, withdrew an application to extend the Erbitux’s use to lung tumors in February after the Food and Drug Administration questioned differences in American and European versions of the treatment.

$10,000 a Month

The authors projected that Erbitux costs $80,000 based on a typical course of treatment for lung tumors, 18 weeks. If all 550,000 U.S. patients who die of cancer each year took 12 months of Erbitux, the total cost would be $440 billion, 100 times the annual budget of the National Cancer Institute, the authors said.

Bristol-Myers estimated Erbitux’s cost to be lower, at about $10,000 a month, according to company spokesman Brian Henry. The drug is approved to treat head, neck and colon cancer. A Lilly spokeswoman referred questions to Bristol-Myers.

“Erbitux isn’t indicated for all cancer patients, nor would all cancer patients for which Erbitux is indicated necessarily receive the medicine for one year,” Henry said in an e-mailed statement.

Lilly gained Erbitux in its $6.5 billion purchase of ImClone Systems Inc. last year. German drugmaker Merck KGaA markets Erbitux outside the U.S.

Cancer medicines are the best-selling and fastest-growing group of drugs in the U.S., and sales will surge 12 to 15 percent each year to top $75 billion by 2012, according to IMS Health Inc., a pharmaceutical industry research company in Norwalk, Connecticut.

About 220,000 people will be diagnosed with lung cancer in the U.S. this year, and 160,000 will die, according to the National Cancer Institute.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Rapaport in New York

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