Cas­cade of costs could push CAR-T ther­a­py to $1.5M per pa­tient

Dr. Kei­th Eaton, who suf­fered from leukemia, pos­es for a pho­to with his par­ents fol­low­ing his bone mar­row trans­plant. He says he ran up med­ical bills of $500,000 when he par­tic­i­pat­ed in a clin­i­cal tri­al of CAR T cells in 2013. (Cour­tesy of Dr. Kei­th Eaton)

Out­rage over the high cost of can­cer care has fo­cused on sky­rock­et­ing drug prices, in­clud­ing the $475,000 price tag for the coun­try’s first gene ther­a­py, No­var­tis’ Kym­ri­ah, a leukemia treat­ment ap­proved in Au­gust.

But the to­tal costs of Kym­ri­ah and the 21 sim­i­lar drugs in de­vel­op­ment — known as CAR T-cell ther­a­pies — will be far high­er than many have imag­ined, reach­ing $1 mil­lion or more per pa­tient, ac­cord­ing to lead­ing can­cer ex­perts. The next CAR T-cell drug could be ap­proved as soon as No­vem­ber.

Al­though Kym­ri­ah’s price tag has “shat­tered on­col­o­gy drug pric­ing norms,” said Leonard Saltz, chief of gas­troin­testi­nal on­col­o­gy at Memo­r­i­al Sloan Ket­ter­ing Can­cer Cen­ter in New York, “the stick­er price is just the start­ing point.”

These ther­a­pies lead to a cas­cade of costs, pro­pelled by se­ri­ous side ef­fects that re­quire so­phis­ti­cat­ed man­age­ment, Saltz said. For this class of drugs, Saltz ad­vised con­sumers to “think of the $475,000 as parts, not la­bor.”

Dr. Hagop Kan­tar­jian, a leukemia spe­cial­ist and pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas MD An­der­son Can­cer Cen­ter, es­ti­mates Kym­ri­ah’s to­tal cost could reach $1.5 mil­lion.

CAR T-cell ther­a­py is ex­pen­sive be­cause of the unique way that it works. Doc­tors har­vest pa­tients’ im­mune cells, ge­net­i­cal­ly al­ter them to rev up their abil­i­ty to fight can­cer, then re­in­fuse them in­to pa­tients.

Tak­ing the brakes off the im­mune sys­tem, Kan­tar­jian said, can lead to life-threat­en­ing com­pli­ca­tions that re­quire lengthy hos­pi­tal­iza­tions and ex­pen­sive med­ica­tions, which are pre­scribed in ad­di­tion to con­ven­tion­al can­cer ther­a­py, rather than in place of it.

Dr. Kei­th Eaton, like near­ly half of pa­tients who re­ceive CAR T-cell ther­a­py, de­vel­oped a life-threat­en­ing com­pli­ca­tion in which his im­mune sys­tem over­re­act­ed. He says he feels for­tu­nate to be healthy to­day.

Dr. Kei­th Eaton, a Seat­tle on­col­o­gist, said he ran up med­ical bills of $500,000 when he par­tic­i­pat­ed in a clin­i­cal tri­al of CAR T cells in 2013, even though all pa­tients in the study re­ceived the med­ica­tion for free. Eaton, who suf­fered from leukemia, spent near­ly two months in the hos­pi­tal.

Kei­th Eaton 

Like Eaton, near­ly half of pa­tients who re­ceive CAR T cells de­vel­op a se­vere or life-threat­en­ing com­pli­ca­tion called “cy­tokine storm,” in which the im­mune sys­tem over­re­acts, caus­ing dan­ger­ous­ly high fevers and sud­den drops in blood pres­sure. These pa­tients are typ­i­cal­ly treat­ed in the in­ten­sive care unit. Oth­er se­ri­ous side ef­fects in­clude stroke-like symp­toms and co­ma.

The cy­tokine storm felt like “the worst flu of your life,” said Eaton, now 51. His fever spiked so high that a hos­pi­tal nurse as­sumed the ther­mome­ter was bro­ken. Eaton replied, “It’s not bro­ken. My tem­per­a­ture is too high to reg­is­ter on the ther­mome­ter.”

Al­though Eaton re­cov­ered, he wasn’t done with treat­ment. His doc­tors rec­om­mend­ed a bone-mar­row trans­plant, an­oth­er har­row­ing pro­ce­dure, at a cost of hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars.

Eaton said he feels for­tu­nate to be healthy to­day, with tests show­ing no ev­i­dence of leukemia. His in­sur­er paid for al­most every­thing.

Kym­ri­ah’s stick­er price is es­pe­cial­ly “out­ra­geous” giv­en its rel­a­tive­ly low man­u­fac­tur­ing costs, said Dr. Walid Gel­lad, co-di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal Pol­i­cy and Pre­scrib­ing at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh.

The gene ther­a­py process used to cre­ate Kym­ri­ah costs about $15,000, ac­cord­ing to a 2012 pre­sen­ta­tion by Dr. Carl June, who pi­o­neered CAR T-cell re­search at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia. June could not be reached for com­ment.

To quell un­rest about price, No­var­tis has of­fered pa­tients and in­sur­ers a new twist on the mon­ey-back guar­an­tee.

No­var­tis will charge for the drug on­ly if pa­tients go in­to re­mis­sion with­in one month of treat­ment. In a key clin­i­cal tri­al, 83 per­cent of the chil­dren and young adults treat­ed with Kym­ri­ah went in­to re­mis­sion with­in three months. No­var­tis calls the plan “out­comes-based pric­ing.”

No­var­tis is “work­ing through the spe­cif­ic de­tails” of how the pric­ing plan will af­fect the Cen­ters for Medicare & Med­ic­aid Ser­vices, which pays for care for many can­cer pa­tients, com­pa­ny spokes­woman Julie Ma­sow said. “There are many hur­dles” to this type of pric­ing plan but, Ma­sow said, “No­var­tis is com­mit­ted to mak­ing this hap­pen.”

Ma­sow said that Kym­ri­ah’s man­u­fac­tur­ing costs are much high­er than $15,000, al­though she didn’t cite a spe­cif­ic dol­lar amount. She not­ed that No­var­tis has in­vest­ed heav­i­ly in the tech­nol­o­gy, de­sign­ing “an in­no­v­a­tive man­u­fac­tur­ing fa­cil­i­ty and process specif­i­cal­ly for cel­lu­lar ther­a­pies.”

As for Kym­ri­ah-re­lat­ed hos­pi­tal and med­ica­tion charges, “costs will vary from pa­tient to pa­tient and treat­ment cen­ter to treat­ment cen­ter, based on the lev­el of care each pa­tient re­quires,” Ma­sow said. “Kym­ri­ah is a one-time treat­ment that has shown re­mark­able ear­ly, deep and durable re­spons­es in these chil­dren who are very sick and of­ten out of op­tions.”

Some doc­tors said Kym­ri­ah, which could be used by about 600 pa­tients a year, of­fers an in­cal­cu­la­ble ben­e­fit for des­per­ate­ly ill young peo­ple. Kym­ri­ah is ap­proved for chil­dren and young adults with a type of acute lym­phoblas­tic leukemia and al­ready have been treat­ed with at least two oth­er can­cer ther­a­pies.

“A kid’s life is price­less,” said Dr. Michelle Her­mis­ton, di­rec­tor of pe­di­atric im­munother­a­py at UCSF Be­nioff Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal San Fran­cis­co. “Any giv­en kid has the po­ten­tial to make fi­nan­cial im­pacts over a life­time that far out­weigh the cost of their cure. From this per­spec­tive, every child in my mind de­serves the best cu­ra­tive ther­a­py we can of­fer.”

Oth­er can­cer doc­tors say the No­var­tis plan is no bar­gain.

About 36 per­cent of pa­tients who go in­to re­mis­sion with Kym­ri­ah re­lapse with­in one year, said Dr. Vinay Prasad, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of med­i­cine at Ore­gon Health & Sci­ence Uni­ver­si­ty. Many of these pa­tients will need ad­di­tion­al treat­ment, said Prasad, who wrote an ed­i­to­r­i­al about Kym­ri­ah’s price Oct. 4 in Na­ture.

“If you’ve paid half a mil­lion dol­lars for drugs and half a mil­lion dol­lars for care, and a year lat­er your can­cer is back, is that a good deal?” asked Saltz, who co-wrote a re­cent ed­i­to­r­i­al on Kym­ri­ah’s price in JA­MA.

Dr. Steve Miller, chief med­ical of­fi­cer for Ex­press Scripts, a phar­ma­cy ben­e­fit man­ag­er, said it would be more fair to judge Kym­ri­ah’s suc­cess af­ter six months of treat­ment, rather than one month. Prasad goes even fur­ther. He said No­var­tis should is­sue re­funds for any pa­tient whose leukemia re­laps­es with­in three years.

A con­sumer ad­vo­cate group called Pa­tients for Af­ford­able Drugs al­so has said that Kym­ri­ah costs too much, giv­en that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment spent more than $200 mil­lion over two decades to sup­port the ba­sic re­search in­to CAR T-cell ther­a­py, long be­fore No­var­tis bought the rights.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, wrote a let­ter to the Medicare pro­gram’s di­rec­tor last month ask­ing for de­tails on how the No­var­tis pay­ment deal will work.

“As Big Phar­ma con­tin­ues to put price goug­ing be­fore pa­tient ac­cess, com­pa­nies will point more and more proud­ly at their pric­ing agree­ments,” Doggett wrote. “But tax­pay­ers de­serve to know more about how these agree­ments will work — whether they will ac­tu­al­ly save the gov­ern­ment mon­ey, de­fray these mas­sive costs, and en­sure that they can ac­cess life-sav­ing med­ica­tions.”

By Liz Sz­abo. Orig­i­nal­ly post­ed at Kaiser Health News, a na­tion­al health pol­i­cy news ser­vice that is part of the non­par­ti­san Hen­ry J Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion.

Lessons for biotech and phar­ma from a doc­tor who chased his own cure

After being struck by a rare disease as a healthy third year medical student, David Fajgenbaum began an arduous journey chasing his own cure. Amidst the hustle of this year’s JP Morgan conference, the digital trials platform Medable partnered with Endpoints Studio to share Dr. Fajgenbaum’s story with the drug development industry.

What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation between Medable CEO Dr. Michelle Longmire and Dr. Fajgenbaum, and it is full of lessons for biotech executives charged with bringing the next generation of medicines to patients.

No­var­tis gets a boost in block­buster mul­ti­ple scle­ro­sis race with Roche

In the first step of what’s likely to be a long and uphill battle for the drugmaker, the FDA has accepted Novartis’s BLA submission for a new multiple sclerosis drug and given it priority review. The PDUFA date for the potential blockbuster drug is in June.

The drug, known as ofatumumab or Arzerra, has performed consistently well across late-stage trials in patients with the most common form of MS, including in head-to-head studies against Sanofi’s old blockbuster Aubagio. But, if the drug is approved, Novartis will find itself in a crosstown game of catch-up; since a 2017 approval, Roche’s Ocrevus has become the second best-selling MS drug on the market, nearly eclipsing Biogen’s Tecfidera last quarter with over a $1 billion in sales.

Coro­n­avirus out­break threat­ens short­age of 150 drugs — re­port

American patients who suffer from conditions other than Covid-19 could feel the impact of the coronavirus due to shortage of drugs — as 150 prescription drugs are now reportedly on a list of at-risk therapies. The list spans “antibiotics, generics and some branded drugs without alternatives,” Axios reported citing sources familiar with the list. The FDA declined to comment.

Although factories in China are gradually reopening, restrictions in travel and disruptions at transit hubs are still slowing down production. An Indian company that relies on active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) from China told Bloomberg last week that it’s seeing prices of commonly used drugs jump by 40% to 70%.

Juergen Horn

An­i­mal health vet Juer­gen Horn makes new an­ti­body play for pets, rak­ing $15M in Se­ries A haul

Zoetis forked over $85 million in 2017 to acquire Nexvet Biopharma and its pipeline of monoclonal antibodies. Juergen Horn, Nexvet’s former chief product development officer, has now secured $15 million for his own biologic company for animals: Invetx.

Buoyed by emerging advances in gene therapies for humans, scientists have started looking at harnessing the technology for animals setting up companies such as Penn-partnered Scout Bio and George Church-founded Rejuvenate Bio. But akin to Nexvet, Invetx is working on leveraging the time-tested science of monoclonal antibodies to treat chronic diseases that afflict man’s best friend.

Tim Mayleben (file photo)

Es­pe­ri­on's goldilocks cho­les­terol fight­er wins FDA ap­proval — will its 'tra­di­tion­al' pric­ing ap­proach spur adop­tion?

It’s more effective than decades-old statins but not as good as the injectable PCSK9 — the goldilocks treatment for cholesterol-lowering, bempedoic acid, has secured FDA approval.

Its maker, Esperion Therapeutics, is betting that their pricing strategy — a planned list price of between $10 to $11 a day — will help it skirt the pushback the PCSK9 cholesterol fighters, Repatha and Praluent, got from payers for their high sticker prices.

The sky-high expectations for the pair of PCSK9 drugs that were first approved in 2015 quickly simmered — and despite a 60% price cut, coupled with data showing the therapies also significantly cut cardiovascular risk, sales have not really perked up.

Esperion is convinced that by virtue of being a cheaper oral therapy, bempedoic acid will hit that sweet spot in terms of adoption.

“We’re kind of like the old comfortable shoe,” Esperion’s chief commercial officer Mark Glickman remarked in an interview with Endpoints News ahead of the decision date. “It’s an oral product, once-daily and nontitratable — these are things that just resonate so true with patients and physicians and I think we’ve kind of forgotten about that.”

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As coro­n­avirus out­break reach­es 'tip­ping point,' GSK lends ad­ju­vant tech to Chi­nese part­ner armed with pre­clin­i­cal vac­cine

As the coronavirus originating out of Wuhan spreads to South Korea, Italy and Iran, stoking already intense fears of a pandemic, GlaxoSmithKline has found another pair of trusted hands to place its adjuvant system. China’s Clover Biopharmaceuticals will add the adjuvant to its preclinical, protein-based vaccine candidate against SARS-CoV-2.

Clover, which is based in the inland city of Chengdu, boasts of a platform dubbed Trimer-Tag that produces covalently-trimerized fusion proteins. Its candidate, COVID-19 S-Trimer, resembles the viral spike (S)-protein found in the virus.

Deborah Dunsire

The fourth CGRP mi­graine drug is here. Time for Lund­beck to prove it's worth $2B

They may be late, but Lundbeck is now officially in the game for preventing migraine with CGRP drugs.

The FDA has OK’d eptinezumab, the prize in Lundbeck’s $2 billion acquisition of Alder. Like rival offerings from Amgen/Novartis, Eli Lilly and Teva, the antibody blocks the calcitonin gene-related peptide, which is believed to dilate blood vessels in the brain and cause pain.

It will now be sold as Vyepti. The company has yet to announce a price. Amgen and Novartis had set the wholesale acquisition cost of their pioneering Aimovig at $6,900 for a year’s supply before raising it slightly this year; Lilly and Teva had followed suit with Emgality and Ajovy.

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Tal Zaks (Moderna via YouTube)

For two decades, a new vac­cine tech­nol­o­gy has been slow­ly ap­proach­ing prime time. Now, can it stop a pan­dem­ic?

Two months before the outbreak, Moderna CMO Tal Zaks traveled from Cambridge, MA to Washington DC to meet with Anthony Fauci and the leaders of the National Institutes of Health.

For two years, Moderna had worked closely with NIH researchers to build a new kind of vaccine for MERS, one of the deadliest new viruses to emerge in the 21st century. The program was one test for a new technology designed to be faster, cheaper and more precise than the ways vaccines had been made for over a century. They had gathered evidence the technology could work in principle, and Fauci, the longtime head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a longtime advocate for better epidemic preparedness, wanted to see if it, along with a couple of other approaches, could work in a worst-case scenario: A pandemic.

“[We were] trying to find a test case for how to demonstrate if our technology could rapidly prepare,” Zaks told Endpoints News.

Zaks and Fauci, of course, wouldn’t have to wait to develop a new test. By year’s end, an outbreak in China would short circuit the need for one and throw them into 24/7 work on a real-world emergency. They also weren’t the only ones with new technology who saw a chance to help in a crisis.

An ocean away, Lidia Oostvogels was still on vacation and relaxing at her mother’s house in Belgium when her Facebook started changing. It was days after Christmas and on most people’s feeds, the news that China had reported a novel virus to the World Health Organization blurred into the stream of holiday sweaters and fir trees. But on Oostvogels’s feed, full of vaccine researchers and virus experts, speculation boiled: There was a virus in China, something contained to the country, but “exotic,” “weird,” and maybe having to do with animals. Maybe a coronavirus.

Lidia Oostvogels

“I was immediately thinking like, ‘Hey, this is something that if needed, we can play a role,'” Oostvogels told Endpoints.

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Drug ap­provals: FDA pub­lish­es dataset of CDER ap­provals since 1985

To provide researchers with more accurate and accessible data about historic drug approvals, the FDA on Friday released a dataset containing information about all new drugs and biologics approved by the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) dating back to 1985.

“FDA created the compilation to facilitate data accessibility, transparency, and accuracy when researchers seek information about an approved drug,” the FDA writes, adding that the compilation should accurately reflect “the state of each application at the time of initial regulatory approval.”