Pharmaceutical firms spending big on cancer research

Industry devotes 40% of funds to disease but high cost of new drugs causes concern

•Pharmaceutical companies have been pumping more money into cancer research over the past decade.

Today, 40 per cent of the industry's research funds is focused on this, said Dr Bruno Strigini, president of Novartis Oncology. He was speaking on Tuesday at the World Medical Innovation Forum on Cancer, which has gathered more than 1,000 cancer experts to look into what the future holds for this disease that accounts for one in seven deaths globally.

Much of this is driven by the available science, Dr Strigini said, as greater understanding of how cancer behaves is translating into ways to counteract it.

This includes much work on a new way of beating cancer by harnessing the body's own immune system to fight the disease.

Companies are rushing to create treatments to overcome cancer's ability to fool the body's immune system into not fighting it. The hope expressed by several speakers is that these drugs leave behind the "memory" that cancer tumours are foreign and not part of the body.

So, even after a patient has stopped taking the medicine, the body will recognise and fight tumour cells should they recur.

Dr Gillian Leng, deputy chief executive of Britain's The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, raised concerns over the high price of new cancer drugs.

She said: "We all want access to the wonderful drugs coming through, but how can we afford them?"

Cancer treatments globally cost more than US$100 billion (S$134 billion) a year today, and the cost is expected to reach US$147 billion by the end of this decade.

Pharmaceutical heads defended the high prices, as the cost of developing new drugs is very high. Today, it takes about US$2 billion to bring a cancer drug to the market.

Mr Marc de Garidel, chairman and chief executive of pharmaceutical company Ipsen, said: "When you take the risk as industry, you want to be rewarded."

Mr Greg Simon, executive director of The White House Moonshot Initiative - an offshoot of US President Barack Obama's promise to put as much government effort into beating cancer as putting a man on the moon - suggested that health reimbursement needs to move out of the 1950s and into the 21st century.

He said: "A new drug comes on the market and insurance companies freak out because now they are spending US$60,000 more on the patient than they had planned. What they do not realise is that they may be saving US$200,000 otherwise spent in long-term treatment."

Currently, there is no way to amortise this cost over a patient's lifetime, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'Pharmaceutical firms spending big on cancer research'. Subscribe