a syringe in a vial of medicine, new cancer drugs

New cancer drugs have been welcomed as breakthroughs. They often come with a hefty price tag. Many cost over $100,000 a year. That might be justified if there were solid evidence that they save lives.

How Well Do the New Cancer Drugs Work?

Cures for cancer have been few and far between. A new analysis in the BMJ evaluated 48 cancer drugs that the European equivalent of the FDA, the European Medicines Agency, approved before 2009 and 2013 (Davis et al, BMJ, Oct. 4, 2017). The EMA had approved the drugs for 68 different uses, eight on the basis of a single study each. Several studies were not double-blind, considered a standard for drug research.

Although it seemed that the medications were extending survival, later research showed that was true only for half of them. In addition, that benefit was judged clinically meaningful only in about half of those cases.

The authors concluded that many of these cancer drugs were approved “without evidence of benefit on survival or quality of life.” Even more than three years after approval there remains a paucity of solid scientific evidence of substantial benefit.

What About the Price?

We have written previously about the extraordinary cost of these medications. Some of these drugs cost thousands of dollars a month and have been hyped as important new advances.

Since cancer patients are desperate for breakthroughs, they are sometimes willing to pay out of pocket for these expensive new medications in the event that insurance companies are slow to approve the extraordinary costs. Are patients and their families getting what they pay for?

How the FDA Approves New Cancer Drugs:

Many of the new cancer drugs have been approved based on what are referred to as “surrogate end points.” That means the pharmaceutical company demonstrates that a drug can shrink a tumor, improve a blood marker or enhance something called “progression-free survival,” abbreviated PFS. The FDA defines this surrogate marker as:

“PFS is defined as the time from randomization until objective tumor progression or death.”

That usually means the time from when the patient starts treatment in the clinical trial until there is obvious growth of the tumor or the patient dies. In a great many clinical trials a drug company merely has to show that it extends the time till there is “tumor progression.”

What Did the Study Find?

In JAMA Internal Medicine (October 19, 2015) researchers reported on their analysis of new cancer drugs. The investigators reviewed FDA approval data from January 1, 2008 until December 31, 2012. Of the 54 new cancer drugs that were approved during that time, 36 (67%) were based on surrogate end points.

The results of their analysis are shocking:

“Our results show that most cancer drug approvals have not been shown to, or do not, improve clinically relevant end points.

“Since 2008, the FDA has approved a higher percentage of drugs than previously, and cancer drugs are approved on the basis of surrogates that have poor correlations with overall survival. Our results suggest that the FDA may be approving many costly, toxic drugs that do not improve overall survival. Enforcement of postmarketing studies is therefore of critical importance.”

The Bottom Line on New Cancer Drugs:

There are some new cancer drugs that really do represent an important advance in treatment. Sadly, many of the very pricey medications approved over the last several years do not lead to benefits that patients and their families really care about: improved survival. And such drugs are not only costly, they come with substantial toxicity.

Perhaps the FDA should reconsider its policy of approving new cancer drugs quickly based on surrogate end points and instead approve such medications only when they demonstrate substantial improvement in both quality and quantity of life.

We welcome your thoughts and your experiences below in the comment section.

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  1. Linda

    My 51 yr old son has malignant melanoma stage 4. He was in a clinical trial of a combo of immunotherapy drugs with a hopeful outcome. Soon his immune system was in overdrive and he nearly died from the drugs that attacked his liver with extremely high liver enzyme numbers. He was immediately hospitalized and put on high doses of prednisone of 100mg twice a day.

    Soon after that he developed a type of fungal pneumonia that Aids patients develop. He was taken out of the clinical trial after that first hospitalization. The drug side effects have been horrendous, especially the prednisone which has attacked his bones causing them to be brittle with spinal fractures.

    The nightmare continues with frequent doctor appointments that are an hour away. He is doing somewhat better right now. Soon he will have a repeat MRI and CT scan to see what’s going on in his body at this point.

    He had just about every side effect there was from the immunotherapy drugs and the prednisone. His pneumonia medication was Bactrim with a 4 times the usual dose. That also almost killed him after which he was put on a $500 drug.

  2. Larry M
    Raleigh, NC

    Great questions! Another one: Some drugs indeed extend survival, but at reduced quality of life? How do you weigh the reduced quality of life and extreme cost?

    How about the length of the extension? Would you pay for a dozen $12,500 treatments that extended the mean patient lifetime by 1.5 days? How about if insurance were paying for it?

  3. L.B.

    Very interesting article and a good explanation of what we experienced last year when our very active and healthy 83 y.o. mother was suddenly diagnosed with large B-cell lymphoma. She said she was ready to die, having lived a good life, but the docs were all repeatedly and enthusiastically saying “We can cure this”. She agreed to be cured.

    One hour before the CHOP treatment the young oncologist gave me the paperwork to sign, with information about the drugs, side-effects and cure rates in her age range. In the 80-85 year age range, only 53.8% of patients are still alive at 2 years. Alive, did not mean cancer free. Those stats certainly did not mean CURED to me.

    I never told my mother and she began the first round of chemo. Within 24 hours she had a major GI bleed, one of the side effects. Down the rabbit hole; now the staff said we needed to do blood transfusions. Mom said it was torture. We refused Round two. Docs were all a twitter saying she would take a long time to die because of Round 1. She left us peacefully in three weeks, without feeling ill from The Cure.

  4. Stephen

    Drug Companies and FDA are in bed together !!!!

  5. Anne

    First, how does anyone afford them? Even if Insurance picked up part of the cost, the copay would still be huge. And it seems unethical that they are even allowed to market them in the first place. Great way to line their pockets from something that has a questionable outcome.

    Here we are fighting over the high cost of healthcare and our government seems to do nothing when it comes to this sort of thing.

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