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A scientist separates proteins by gel electrophoresis in a lab at the Institute of Cancer Research in Sutton, July 15, 2013. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth


By Ben Hirschler

LONDON (Reuters) - A group of academic researchers has demanded an end to cancer medicines costing more than $100,000 (£79,861) a year and proposed a new model of low-cost drug development that would capitalise on recent advances in science.

The spiralling cost of cancer medicines is a growing concern for doctors and their patients, many of whom struggle to pay for new medicines that often cost $10,000 a month.

Sky-high prices have made oncology hugely profitable, with IMS Health forecasting global cancer drug sales of at least $150 billion by 2020. Scientists, however, believe today's prices are simply not sustainable as more and more people need treatment.

Writing in the journal Cell on Thursday, European and U.S. experts laid out a blueprint for reining in costs by increasing the role of academic research groups, working alongside new kinds of private companies, in the development of new drugs.

Rather than simply licensing discoveries to Big Pharma, academic groups should in future consider working with smaller companies that commit to capping prices, low-cost generic drug companies or non-profit organisations, they said.

"Something has to change. This is a call to arms," Paul Workman, one of the paper's authors and chief executive of Britain's Institute of Cancer Research, told Reuters.

"Charging $100,000 is unsustainable. We need to be thinking about getting prices down towards a half or a third of that, ideally even less."

The call coincides with growing political pressure on the issue, including an attack on high drug prices by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Workman, whose institute has discovered 20 drug candidates since 2005, believes cancer drug prices have become disconnected from economics as companies charge what the market will bear rather than a price reflecting costs.

A principal justification for high prices is the financial burden of running large clinical trials to secure regulatory approval. Yet this increasingly does not apply in the case of modern cancer therapies.

For example the registration study for Pfizer's targeted lung cancer drug Xalkori required only 347 patients, while last year's extended approval of the medicine to patients with mutations in the ROS1 gene involved only 50 subjects.

Workman, together with colleagues from the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas and the Netherlands Cancer Institute, said the solution was for an increasing proportion of drug developments to be driven by academia.

To an extent that is already happening. Many of the latest advances in cancer treatment originate in academic labs and there are now nearly 150 academic drug discovery centres around the world, 80 percent of which develop oncology products.

Those academic centres should in future focus not only on getting their discoveries to market but also on securing drug price caps as part of their negotiations with commercial partners, the authors said.

Increasing the scale and expertise of academic centres will take time and money, but in the long term the new competition should also help drive down prices in conventional pharma and biotech, they said.

(Editing by Greg Mahlich)

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