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Cancer drug prices skyrocketing on high costs of developing 'molecular targeted drugs'

The prices of cancer drugs in Japan and abroad have been skyrocketing, according to analyses conducted by doctors in Japan and the United States.

    In Japan, the prices of newly-approved cancer drugs have been rising sharply since the 2000s, with the development and introduction of "molecular targeted drugs" that are designed to attack specific cancer cells. In the United States as well, cancer drug prices jumped about five-fold to about US$10,000 per patient per month in 2010-14 from the levels before 2000. Furthermore, newly released drugs -- new types of cancer drugs that use effects of immune mechanisms -- are also helping push up cancer drug prices.

    Yasushi Goto, a doctor at the National Cancer Center, calculated monthly prices of lung cancer drugs used by Japanese men with an average physique in Japan. The monthly prices of most of the anticancer drugs such as "Cisplatin" which was approved in 1983 that kill cancer cells by inhibiting their growth were found to be less than 100,000 yen per person. But since 2002 when "Gefitinib" (trade name Iressa), a molecular-targeted drug for lung cancer, came into the market, the monthly prices of anticancer drugs have risen to several hundred thousand yen per person, with some of them rising to about 700,000 to 800,000 yen in the last two to three years.

    A new type of anticancer drug called "Nivolumab," commonly known as "Opdivo" with a price tag of more than 3 million yen per month, began to be used in Japan in 2015. In Japan, there is the so-called "high cost illness insurance system" that sets limits on patients' out-of-pocket medical costs depending on their income. Therefore, a patient below the age of 70 (with their spouse and one child) is required to pay 35,400 yen to about 252,600 yen per month. The remaining costs shall be shouldered by the members of the insurance system.

    A team at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City compared prices of newly-approved cancer drugs every five years since 1975. The team found that monthly prices of such drugs stood at about US$130 per person in the 1975-79 period, but they rose to US$1,770 in the 1995-99 period when 30 kinds of new drugs became available. The prices of such drugs kept increasing thereafter to US$4,716 per person in the 2000-04 period. The prices of such drugs rose rapidly to US$9,905 per person in the 2010-14 period.

    The prices of anticancer drugs have been getting higher due in part to the fact that rates of success in developing new types of anticancer drug are low, as well as it takes a long time and much funds to develop such drugs. Because the number of patients who are subject to the use of molecular targeted drugs is small, the prices of such drugs tend to go high.

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