Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Governmental Camels and Stem Cell Swag

Is it good business for a drug company to charge – let's say $47,000 for a 10-month cancer treatment – or will such pricing hurt the industry long term?

But forget the business issue. Is it good public policy to allow a company to charge those fees – labelled egregious by some? Especially if the treatment was partially financed with public funds?

Questions such as those stand close to the center of the debate over the intellectual property that will be produced by $3 billion in research funded by California's stem cell agency. Intellectual property policy is the vehicle because that's where CIRM sets its requirements for royalties and revenue-sharing connected to its research. That is also where it sets its requirements for affordable access to stem cell cures that it helps to finance.

The $47,000 treatment cost is not hypothetical. It involves Genentech and its drug, Avastin, which was developed with the help of some clinical trials that were subsidized by the federal government.

On March 15, the Wall Street Journal examined the case of Avastin in a front page story. Reporter Geeta Anand began her piece like this:
"Two years ago, Steven Harr urged Genentech Inc. to lower the price of a key drug that was helping buoy its stock price. He was an unlikely messenger because of his job: a Wall Street research analyst whose investing clients crave profits.

"In a conference room with 30 senior managers from the biotech company, Dr. Harr said he feared patients wouldn't be able to afford the drug Avastin, which costs about $47,000 for the average 10-month course of treatment for colorectal cancer. He warned that Congress 'will get involved when its constituents can't get drugs.' Genentech later capped Avastin's price, acknowledging the influence of Dr. Harr, among many others."
Harr also pointed out an interesting bit of blowback from oncologists detected during a survey he conducted. According to the WSJ story,
"He says most physicians surveyed weren't prescribing the drug in breast and lung cancer for fear of not being reimbursed. Avastin and Erbitux are given to patients intravenously in doctors' offices. Doctors buy the drug ahead of time, infuse it into patients and then wait to be reimbursed. Any refusal by insurers to reimburse would leave doctors thousands of dollars in debt."
Harr, an analyst with Morgan Stanley, sees high prices as bad for business.
"He says soaring cancer-drug prices, generating fat profit margins, aren't sustainable."
That is a message that is sometimes hard for business executives to accept. They rail at governmental fiddling with their enterprises. They froth at bumbling regulators. But at the same time, many seek government assistance for research, favorable regulation, tax benefits or laws restricting their competitors. Contrary to popular belief, the vast majority of legislative activity nationally and in California does not involve such things as gay marriage or sex offenders or drivers licenses. It involves "filthy lucre" and crass commerce. Most of it is instigated by those advocates of free markets – the top executives of the finest companies in America. It is why business spends tens of millions of dollars and more annually lobbying lawmakers.

Folks such as those at the California Healthcare Institute, which represents the state biomedical industry, want the grants from CIRM. But they don't want to pay the piper that provides the basis for the plenititude. Or they don't want to pay as much as some watchdog groups and legislators would like. But like any other investor, the state wants its slice and does not want to be treated a whole lot differently than, say, the venture capitalists at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, if they had laid out a $3 billion investment. When you invite governmental camels into your tent, it is sometimes hard to get them to leave.

Biotech, however, has valid points concerning writing what are basically the terms of a business deal into state law and regulation. Both are difficult to change and can impair development of cures if they are riddled with restrictive minutia. Likewise, biotech firms must see a strong likelihood of making money. If they don't, the cures will not be developed unless the government is ready to pay for the whole process, which is not likely to happen in our lifetime.

Obviously, the state of California is not a venture capital firm. Perhaps not so obviously, the stem cell industry is not the most shining example of private markets at work. The finest risk-takers in America(venture capitalists) run for the back exits, for the most part, when they see a stem cell executive come through the front door. The result is that with embryonic stem cell research in California, we have an amalgam of business, government and science. That means that compromises must be made by all the players. If one of the partners gets too greedy, the whole endeavor – the California stem cell experiment -- can fail.

Finally we should note that a group actively engaged with CIRM on IP issues was mentioned in the WSJ article but not by name. That organization is the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights of Santa Monica, Ca. Here is what the WSJ wrote about FTCR.
"In the spring of last year, a taxpayer group in California began publicly condemning Genentech for charging too much for Avastin, noting that the federal government's National Institutes of Health had subsidized some clinical trials of the drug. Not long after, Genentech said it was considering capping the price of Avastin."
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