Sunday, February 12, 2017

Cost of a Stem Cell Therapy? An Estimated $900,000

What is the likely cost of a freshly minted stem cell therapy? Close to $900,000. That's at least by one current estimate.

In the United States, such calculations are rare. Researchers and biotech executives shy away from discussing in public such daunting figures.

The figure emerged last week, however, in news from Japan about groundbreaking research to treat macular degeneration with reprogrammed adult stem cells.

While stem cell insiders are not keen on discussing $900,000 therapies -- at least their cost -- the public, however, is deeply interested. Development of expensive therapies is also likely to play a role in the future of California's $3 billion stem cell agency, which expects to run out of cash in 2020. Voters may look askance at publicly financed therapies that appear to be out of reach.

Exorbitant health care costs are on the minds of many. Forty-seven percent of the public said in 2016 that cost and access are the nation's most urgent health care problems, according to a Gallup Poll. Of all the nearly 4,300 items published on the California Stem Cell Report over the last 12 years, the most widely read article deals with the cost of stem cell treatments.

As of this morning, the 2013 article had recorded 21,963 page views, a standard way of measuring readership on web sites. Another related document chalked up 27,699 views on Scribd, where it was also published by the California Stem Cell Report. The figures are roughly four and five times higher than other relatively well-read pieces.

Readers do not give reasons for choosing the articles. But it is likely that their pocketbooks and hopes of affordable therapies are driving their interest.

Affordability was a big issue in the creation of the stem cell agency via a ballot initiative in 2004, Proposition 71. The agency, formally known as the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), has not devoted any significant attention to the matter in the last few years.

But if the agency wants to secure additional public or even private funding, it will need to make the case that its work is more than just another entry in the medical arms race.

Just yesterday, OncLive,  an oncology news site, carried a report on the skyrocketing expense of cancer drugs alone, which cost the nation $16 billion annually in 2010 and jumped to $38 billion in 2015. As for individual cancer patients, they are looking at costs of more than $150,000 a year for drugs, figures that have generated a ruckus in the cancer treatment community.

Drug costs are a small part of the total health care bill for country. But they are a litmus test for policy makers and the public. The costs are relatively straight forward compared to some other health care measures. But they are readily understandable by most families, who usually have one member or more involved in prescription purchases.

 As efforts to repeal-and-replace the Affordable Care Act gain increasing attention over the next year, the public is likely to focus even more on the costs of treatments and drugs, whether it is a $19 aspirin or a $900,000 stem cell therapy.

The "good" news, however, last week out of Japan was that the $900,000 cost of the stem cell macular degeneration treatment could be reduced to below $200,000 as the kinks are worked out and the treatment becomes more common -- if it clears its clinical trials.

As for California, CIRM  has pumped $125 million into research dealing with blindness, including macular degeneration which afflicts 1.7 million Americans. Nearly one million Americans are blind from all causes and another 2.4 million suffer significant visual impairment. More information on the state research can be found here. A CIRM video on vision issues is below.

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