Europe's oncologists back biosimilar versions of cancer drugs

(Reuters) - Europe’s leading association of oncologists has thrown its weight behind cheaper copycat versions of biotech cancer drugs that have lost patent protection, saying they are effective and affordable.

Off-patent chemical medicines have for decades been copied with precision and sold as cheap generic versions, but drug regulators have only over recent years embraced copycat versions of complex biological drugs, known as biosimilars.

Even though biotech drugs, which are proteins made from genetically-modified cells, cannot be exactly replicated, biosimilars have been shown to be equivalent in terms of effectiveness and side effects.

“Biosimilars are must-have weaponry in financially sustaining healthcare systems on a global scale as well as significantly improving outcomes for an increasing number of patients throughout Europe and the rest of the world,” ESMO President Professor Fortunato Ciardiello said in a statement.

ESMO added that price discounts for biosimilars of 20 to 40 percent could be reached in Europe, with potential savings for healthcare systems of 50–100 billion euros ($53-$107 billion) by 2020.

Europe has been in the lead over the United States in opening up regulatory pathways for biosimilars.

The first biosimilar versions of cancer drugs are expected to reach the market in Europe this year, with Amgen Inc and Allergan Plc seeking EU approval of their version of Roche Holding AG’s blockbuster cancer treatment Avastin.

“Biosimilars are an excellent opportunity to have good, valid drug options that improve the sustainability and affordability of cancer treatment in various countries,” ESMO said, also publishing a paper with recommendations on how doctors should handle them.

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Reporting by Ludwig Burger; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle