How much is a human life worth? An innovative cancer therapy promises to save lives. But it is extremely expensive. Will the insurance companies pay for it? What is the manufacturer’s return on investment? And do lobbyists drive up prices?
In 2018, the Kymriah gene therapy was approved in Europe. Immune cells are taken from the patient, genetically reprogrammed into cancer killer cells and returned to the patient as an infusion. The results of the Kymriah study only cover a period of 18 months. In 40 percent of patients, lymph gland cancer does not return during this time. It is not clear whether Kymriah has a long-term effect. The Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis offers the new therapy – it costs 370,000 Swiss francs per patient. Health insurance companies are not usually prepared to pay that much and are complaining about a lack of transparency.
But the killer cells were not invented in the Novartis laboratories, but at a US university. When Professor Carl June started his research almost 30 years ago, no pharmaceutical company was interested. It was only thanks to funding from tax money and donations that he was able to develop Kymriah at all. After a story went around the world about a girl with leukemia whose cancer disappeared thanks to Kymriah, the pharmaceutical company contacted Novartis and secured exclusive marketing rights. To launch Kymriah on the market, Novartis funded the necessary clinical trials. It’s not an isolated incident: Over 60% of newly approved medicines in the US are developed by small biotech companies or universities. Pharmaceutical companies today frequently act as capital providers, cooperating with universities or buying up biotech companies.
A paradigm shift has taken place in the pharmaceutical industry: Whereas high drug prices used to be justified by research costs, the industry is now using the value of gained lifetime to argue its case.