Cancer cost "becoming unsustainable" in rich nations

STOCKHOLM Mon Sep 26, 2011 2:23pm EDT

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STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - An explosion of new technologies and treatments for cancer coupled with a rapid rise in cases of the disease worldwide mean cancer care is rapidly becoming unaffordable in many developed countries, oncology experts said on Monday.

With costs ballooning, a radical shift in thinking is needed to ensure fairer access to medicines and address tricky questions like balancing extra months of life for patients against costs of a new drug, technology or care plan, they said.

"The cancer community needs to take responsibility and not accept a sub-standard evidence base and an ethos of very small benefit at whatever cost," said a report commissioned by the Lancet Oncology medical journal on the costs of cancer care.

"There should be fair prices and real value from new technologies."

Some 12 million people worldwide are diagnosed with cancer each year and that number is expected to rise to 27 million by 2030.

The cost of new cancer cases is already estimated to be about $286 billion a year, with medical costs making up more than half the economic burden and productivity losses account for nearly a quarter, according to Economist Intelligence United data cited in the report.

The report, led by Richard Sullivan of Britain's King's Health Partners Integrated Cancer Centre in London, said policy-makers, doctors, patients groups and the health industry should work together to find ways to stem future cost rises.

"We are at a crossroads for affordable cancer care, where our choices -- or refusal to make choices -- will affect the lives of millions of people," said Sullivan, who presented his report at the European Multidisciplinary Cancer Congress (EMCC) in Stockholm.

"Do we bury our heads in the sand, keep our fingers crossed, and hope that it turns out fine, or do we have difficult debates and make hard choices?"

Sullivan's team, which brought together 37 experts from wealthy countries, found that cancer costs are driven by many factors, including aging populations and rising demand for healthcare, as well as increasingly sophisticated and expensive targeted cancer drugs.

Prices for some of the latest experimental drugs unveiled at the EMCC -- including a highly-sophisticated armed antibody drug from Roche and a so-called alpha-pharmaceutical from Bayer and Algeta -- are likely to reach into the tens of thousands of dollars per patient.

The Lancet report pointed to Dendreon's Provenge prostate cancer treatment -- which costs more than $100,000 for a three-dose course and was found in trials to improve survival by several months in patients with few other options.

"How should we determine its value?" the report asked.

Michael Baumann, president of the European Cancer Organisation, said there was an "explosion of new possibilities" in cancer treatment and care. This was exciting for scientists, oncologists and cancer patients, he said, but also made it "absolutely necessary to think about this cost issue now."

(Editing by Jon Loades-Carter)

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