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The rising cost of cancer

30 September, 2013

Pressure is mounting on the federal government to fund a growing number of high-cost cancer medications, according to a Flinders University researcher.

Michael Sorich, Associate Professor of Pharmacology, said the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme — the arm of the government which subsidises medications — is facing a challenging future as cancer drugs become more expensive.

He said the cause of the price hike was not entirely clear, although possible factors include the increasing costs of research and development, as well as a trend towards targeting drugs at a smaller group of patients — a concept known as 'personalised medicine'.

"The Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) is being asked to subsidise more drugs costing in the order of tens of thousands of dollars per patient," Associate Professor Sorich said.

"Those requests were quite rare in the past but they're becoming more common, partly because of a change in the way cancer drugs are delivered.

"We're recognising that cancers have subtypes — for example we don't just treat breast cancer anymore, there are many types of breast cancers and some respond better to different drugs so we treat the patient with the drug that's best for them.

"This means we tend to treat smaller groups rather than populations."

However, Associate Professor Sorich said he believed the price charged by pharmaceutical companies was not dependent on development or production costs.

"It's more likely to be dependent on the price the company believes individuals and healthcare systems are willing to pay," he said.

Associate Professor Sorich said ensuring affordable patient access to high-cost medications "in a manner that is sustainable for the healthcare system" is a challenge being faced by all countries, not just Australia.

"Different healthcare systems have different approaches for funding and negotiating the price of new drugs and innovative approaches may be required," he said.

"We don't want to scare people into thinking their medications won't be subsidised anymore because once they're on the PBS they're rarely taken off.

"It's more a question of whether new high-cost cancer drugs will be put on the PBS so individual patients can access them, and how we, as a society, will be able to afford them."