The Cost of Curing Cancer

October 19, 2018 11:30 am

If you’re still a fan of the ABC primetime series Grey’s Anatomy (as some of us at APMI are), you heard one our least-favorite health-care clichés in the fourth episode of season 15 (that’s right, 15).

“It’s not like you’re curing cancer …”

The barb is meant to minimize the importance or difficulty of a task or achievement, but it’s not always appropriate, especially if you’re referring to the biopharmaceutical industry. Because those researchers are trying to cure cancer. And diabetes. And hundreds of infectious diseases.

Indeed, biopharmaceutical researchers are working to develop more than 7,000 medicines. More than 1,900 of these potential breakthroughs concern various forms of cancer; nearly 600 would help individuals prevent and overcome cardiovascular disease; and more than 1,300 pertain to neurological disorders. 

It’s not just cancer and other commonly known diseases and disorders that the industry is trying to eradicate. Thirty million Americans suffer from rare diseases like cystic fibrosis and Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Some of these afflictions are so rare they don’t even have names. They are not forgotten, however. There are more than 450 medicines in development to address rare diseases.

While the National Institutes of Health are important drivers of innovation, the research for the majority of these medicines began in private laboratories.    

The American biomedical industry spent a total of $116.5 billion funding research in 2012. Nearly half of that came from private pharmaceutical firms and biotechnology firms. Another 10 percent came from the medical device industry and four percent came from private foundations, nonprofits, and other charities. The public sector kicked in one-third of the funding in search of cures, but with public budgets increasingly pinched, it’s likely that the private sector will shoulder more of this burden in the future.  

The vast majority of the medicines under development won’t make it to market, of course. In fact, just nine in 10 make it to the formal Food and Drug Administration’s rigorous testing phase. And another one in 10 of those survive that process. Experiments that once seemed so promising will fail, or the side effects will prove too great for humans to endure. In most cases, the original investors never recoup the money spent on that experimentation. (According to the Tufts University Center for the Study of Drug Development, it costs $2.7 billion to bring a medicine from invention to the pharmacy shelf.)

This is the price of developing new treatments and cures. After all, innovation isn’t free, and it depends on a robust network of researchers, investors, government agencies and biopharmaceutical companies, both big and small. But the payoff has been enormous: People are living longer, better lives. And maybe someday the biopharmaceutical industry will cure cancer, forcing TV writers to find another cliché.