Monday, July 28, 2008

Improving survival in Liver Cancer - at what cost?

No effective therapy is available for advanced hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer), it's a terminal condition. Over 18,000 people typically die from it in the USA each year. It is much more common in Africa and East Asia where the risk of infection from Hepatitis B and C is much higher, which are associated with increased risk factors for the disease.

Hepatocellular carcinomaImage via Wikipedia

In this month's New England Journal of Medicine, a randomised trial involving 602 patients with advanced hepatocellular carcinoma was reported. Sorafenib, a multikinase inhibitor of Raf, vascular endothelial growth factor receptor, and platelet-derived growth factor receptor, improved median survival by 3 months compared to placebo (10.7 vs. 7.9 months, P<0.001). Adverse events, including diarrhea and weight loss, were more frequent in patients receiving sorafenib.

Three months doesn't sound a lot, but improvements in cancer survival nearly always occur in small increments. The other side of the coin is at what cost?

An editorial by Dr Lewis Roberts in the same journal noted the following:

“The pharmacy price of sorafenib is approximately $5,400 per month in the United States, {euro}3,562 per month in France, $1,400 per month in Korea, and $7,300 per month in China. Even in industrial nations, the high cost of new drugs produces significant stresses on health system budgets. There are substantial ethical implications in having effective therapies available for life threatening diseases that are priced beyond the reach of the populations most in need of therapy.”

Would you pay $15,000 for an extra three months of life?

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