Amgen Leukemia Therapy Costs $178,000, Among Priciest Drugs

Amgen Inc.’s leukemia drug Blincyto will cost $178,000 for a standard course of treatment, continuing a trend of high prices for immunotherapy, the newest wave of cancer treatments.

The price includes two $89,000 cycles of therapy, the median duration of treatment for patients who responded in clinical studies, said Danielle Bertrand, a spokeswoman for Amgen, the second-biggest U.S. biotechnology company. Each cycle consists of four weeks of treatment.

Blincyto was approved by U.S. regulators on Dec. 3 for patients with an uncommon form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a rapidly growing type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many B-cell lymphoblasts, a type of white blood cell.

Amgen’s drug joins the ranks of several immunotherapy treatments for cancer that will cost the average U.S. patient more than $100,000 -- prices that are under increasing scrutiny by health insurers and lawmakers. Merck & Co.’s Keytruda, approved for advanced skin cancer, will cost $12,500 a month for the average U.S. patient, or about $150,000 a year when given every three weeks. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co.’s Yervoy, also for skin cancer, costs $120,000 per course, which consists of four doses.

“We believe the price reflects the significant clinical, economic and humanistic value of the product to patients and the health-care system, for an ultra-orphan population with a dramatic impact on a serious illness,” Bertrand said in an e-mail. “The price also reflects the complexity of developing, manufacturing and reliably supplying innovative biologic medicines and local pricing, reimbursement and purchasing conditions and requirements.”

Killer Cells

Blincyto works by directing T-cells, the body’s killer cells, to destroy cells expressing CD19 proteins, which are found on the surface of B-cell lymphoblasts. In a trial with patients whose cancers had returned or didn’t respond to previous treatment, 32 percent had no evidence of disease for more than 6 months. Reuters reported on Blincyto’s price earlier today.

The therapy from Thousand Oaks, California-based Amgen is the first anti-CD19 drug to be approved by the FDA. Juno Therapeutics Inc. and Kite Pharma Inc. are among other biotechnology companies developing immunotherapy treatments that target the same protein.

The drug is designed to treat a segment of the 6,020 Americans who will be diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia this year, according to estimates from the National Cancer Institute.

Amgen has a patient support program through its Onyx Pharmaceuticals subsidiary that includes payment assistance, Bertrand said. A patients who is uninsured and whose adjusted gross income is under $100,000 a year can receive the product free, she said.

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