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TOO MUCH? A protest outside the Novartis headquarters in New York.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
TOO MUCH? A protest outside the Novartis headquarters in New York.

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Science | Doctors are pushing back against skyrocketing drug prices

Issue: "Surviving Syria," June 1, 2013

It’s no secret sophisticated new medicine costs big money. Some cancer drug treatments are priced at over $100,000 a year, but patients are willing to pay, thanks to medical insurance and a sense of obligation to pursue the best treatment, even if it only prolongs life a month or two.

What’s not so clear is why drugmakers keep charging more. In the medical journal Blood in April, more than 100 cancer experts complained the prices of drugs have become “astronomical” and raise “moral implications” about fair market value. One leukemia drug, Gleevec, cost $30,000 a year when drugmaker Novartis released it in 2001, but by last year it had increased to $92,000. Broader trends are similar: “Cancer drug prices have almost doubled from a decade ago, from an average of $5,000 per month to more than $10,000 per month.”

While acknowledging drugmakers must spend around $1 billion bringing a new medicine to market—due to research, safety testing, and advertising—the doctors said Novartis could have recouped the cost of developing Gleevec in just a couple years based on U.S. sales alone.

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An additional complication is that drug companies don’t charge the same prices in every country. Gleevec only costs about $29,000 in Mexico, for example (one-third of the U.S. price), so wealthier patients end up subsidizing poorer ones.

Pressure from the medical establishment could be an effective way to lower prices, though. Last October, doctors at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City loudly announced they wouldn’t be offering a new, $11,000-per-month drug called Zaltrap to their colorectal cancer patients. The reason: Another, older drug works just as well and only costs half as much.

Three weeks later, Sanofi, the maker of Zaltrap, cut the price of the drug in half.

Diet of the dead

Associated Press/Photos by Carolyn Kaster

Cuts on the skull and jaw of a 400-year-old American settler offer the first archaeological evidence that early Jamestown, Va., colonists committed cannibalism. Researchers digging in a colony garbage pit last summer unearthed portions of a skeleton with precise cut marks they say indicate someone sliced away the flesh and broke open the skull. The bones belonged to a girl estimated to be 14 years old, who had likely died of other causes before being eaten.

Historians have debated whether the Jamestown settlers committed cannibalism during the early winter months of 1610, although the colony’s president, George Percy, said as much in a letter years afterward. After running out of food during a siege by Powhatan Indians, Percy wrote, the English became so desperate they ate dogs, cats, mice, and shoe leather before resorting to “those things which seame incredible, as to digge upp deade corpes outt of graves and to eate them.” —D.J.D.

Fresh wind

Hannah Warren
Jim Carlson/OSF Saint Francis Medical Center/AP
Hannah Warren

At 2½ years old, Hannah Warren has became the youngest person to receive an artificially grown organ. The Korean-Canadian girl was born without a windpipe and has breathed through a tube her entire life—until April, when doctors at a hospital in Peoria, Ill., implanted a windpipe grown in a lab using her own stem cells.

The lead surgeon, Paolo Macchiarini, told The New York Times that Hannah looked bewildered afterward, since she was able to close her lips for the first time: “It was beautiful.” —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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