Drug Innovation Success Story: President Carter and Keytruda

March 10, 2016 — The article below, which covers drug pricing concerns in the news and the success of Merck’s Keytruda in treating President Jimmy Carter, is reprinted with permission by The RPM Report. According to Coalition for Healthcare Communication Executive Director John Kamp, “Drug innovation is expensive but worth it. Thank goodness that Jimmy Carter is just one example of the value of breakthrough drug treatments.”


Pricing, Innovation & Presidential Politics: Today’s Shocking News

The RPM Report

By Michael McCaughan

Posted March 7, 2016

Executive Summary

Over the last six months, drug pricing has been a headline issue in no small part thanks to the dynamics of Presidential politics. But latest news about former President Jimmy Carter is a reminder that there is another side of the issue.

When former President Jimmy Carter announced last August that he had been diagnosed with metastatic melanoma, it made national news, and Carter’s public remarks were treated as something of a farewell tour.

At the time, no one in Washington had heard of Turing Pharmaceuticals, and you could have made a small fortune if you were willing to bet that the three people who would have won the most primary victories by March 6 would Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

And you probably would have won even more money by betting that all three were making hay attacking drug pricing.

At this point, almost anything that touches on the theme of high priced drugs is national news.

Last week, it was a study focusing on single-use vials in oncology, with the claim that the excess drug left unused amounts to $3 billion a year in “waste.”

That argument isn’t new, but it does resonate more as the price-per-vial reaches ever higher. The example cited in news accounts (like this one) is typical: Merck’s Keytruda is available in 100 mg single use vials, which list for about $4,000 each. Thus, for a patient who receives 140 mg, about 60 mg of drug is thrown away – which the study authors argue would amount to almost $200 million worth of Keytruda thrown away per year.

Merck’s Keytruda price, of course, isn’t based on exactly how much it costs to fill a vial. The company itself focuses on the cost per treatment (approximately $12,500 per month) – and no doubt the price per vial would be higher if in fact every milligram were expected to be used.

But that’s beside the point. The study is part of the broader campaign against high drug prices and offered most media outlets a new angle on that older story.

Whether it is Turing’s 5000% price increase or the “$3 billion” in waste from half-used vials of expensive medicines, the message for the last six months has been one of “shocking” practices in the drug industry.

But along the way, something even more shocking happened. Carter—a 91-year old man, whose metastatic melanoma had spread to the brain—is cancer free. Just six months after announcing the diagnosis, the news today is that Carter is no longer even being treated.

Ten years ago, that outcome could be described only as a miracle. Now, it is a sign of the new era of immunotherapy based cancer treatments, one where such stories will hopefully become routine.

Carter was treated with one of the first of the new agents – Merck’s Keytruda.

That’s a timely reminder that—whatever the sins of the pharmaceutical industry—drug developers are doing something right.