Breakthrough therapies are breaking patients' banks. Key changes could improve access, experts say.
CSL Behring’s new gene therapy for hemophilia, Hemgenix, costs $3.5 million for one treatment, but helps the body create substances that allow blood to clot. It appears to be a cure, eliminating the need for other treatments for many years at least.
Likewise, Novartis’s Kymriah mobilizes the body’s immune system to fight B-cell lymphoma, but at a cost $475,000. For patients who respond, it seems to offer years of life without the cancer progressing.
These single-treatment therapies are at the forefront of a new, bold era of medicine. Unfortunately, they also come with new, bold prices that leave insurers and patients wondering whether they can afford treatment and, if they can, whether the high costs are worthwhile.
“Most pharmaceutical leaders are there to improve and save people’s lives,” says Jeremy Levin, chairman and CEO of Ovid Therapeutics, and immediate past chairman of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization. If the therapeutics they develop are too expensive for payers to authorize, patients aren’t helped.
“The right to receive care and the right of pharmaceuticals developers to profit should never be at odds,” Levin stresses. And yet, sometimes they are.
Leigh Turner, executive director of the bioethics program, University of California, Irvine, notes this same tension between drug developers that are “seeking to maximize profits by charging as much as the market will bear for cell and gene therapy products and other medical interventions, and payers trying to control costs while also attempting to provide access to medical products with promising safety and efficacy profiles.”
Why Payers Balk
Health insurers can become skittish around extremely high prices, yet these therapies often accompany significant overall savings. For perspective, the estimated annual treatment cost for hemophilia exceeds $300,000. With Hemgenix, payers would break even after about 12 years.
But, in 12 years, will the patient still have that insurer? Therein lies the rub. U.S. payers, are used to a “pay-as-you-go” model, in which the lifetime costs of therapies typically are shared by multiple payers over many years, as patients change jobs. Single treatment therapeutics eliminate that cost-sharing ability.
"As long as formularies are based on profits to middlemen…Americans’ healthcare costs will continue to skyrocket,” says Patricia Goldsmith, the CEO of CancerCare.
“There is a phenomenally complex, bureaucratic reimbursement system that has grown, layer upon layer, during several decades,” Levin says. As medicine has innovated, payment systems haven’t kept up.
Therefore, biopharma companies begin working with insurance companies and their pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), which act on an insurer’s behalf to decide which drugs to cover and by how much, early in the drug approval process. Their goal is to make sophisticated new drugs available while still earning a return on their investment.
New Payment Models
Pay-for-performance is one increasingly popular strategy, Turner says. “These models typically link payments to evidence generation and clinically significant outcomes.”
A biotech company called bluebird bio, for example, offers value-based pricing for Zynteglo, a $2.8 million possible cure for the rare blood disorder known as beta thalassaemia. It generally eliminates patients’ need for blood transfusions. The company is so sure it works that it will refund 80 percent of the cost of the therapy if patients need blood transfusions related to that condition within five years of being treated with Zynteglo.
In his February 2023 State of the Union speech, President Biden proposed three pilot programs to reduce drug costs. One of them, the Cell and Gene Therapy Access Model calls on the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to establish outcomes-based agreements with manufacturers for certain cell and gene therapies.
A mortgage-style payment system is another, albeit rare, approach. Amortized payments spread the cost of treatments over decades, and let people change employers without losing their healthcare benefits.
Only about 14 percent of all drugs that enter clinical trials are approved by the FDA. Pharma companies, therefore, have an exigent need to earn a profit.
The new payment models that are being discussed aren’t solutions to high prices, says Bill Kramer, senior advisor for health policy at Purchaser Business Group on Health (PBGH), a nonprofit that seeks to lower health care costs. He points out that innovative pricing models, although well-intended, may distract from the real problem of high prices. They are attempts to “soften the blow. The best thing would be to charge a reasonable price to begin with,” he says.
Instead, he proposes making better use of research on cost and clinical effectiveness. The Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) conducts such research in the U.S., determining whether the benefits of specific drugs justify their proposed prices. ICER is an independent non-profit research institute. Its reports typically assess the degrees of improvement new therapies offer and suggest prices that would reflect that. “Publicizing that data is very important,” Kramer says. “Their results aren’t used to the extent they could and should be.” Pharmaceutical companies tend to price their therapies higher than ICER’s recommendations.
Drug Development Costs Soar
Drug developers have long pointed to the onerous costs of drug development as a reason for high prices.
A 2020 study found the average cost to bring a drug to market exceeded $1.1 billion, while other studies have estimated overall costs as high as $2.6 billion. The development timeframe is about 10 years. That’s because modern therapeutics target precise mechanisms to create better outcomes, but also have high failure rates. Only about 14 percent of all drugs that enter clinical trials are approved by the FDA. Pharma companies, therefore, have an exigent need to earn a profit.
Skewed Incentives Increase Costs
Pricing isn’t solely at the discretion of pharma companies, though. “What patients end up paying has much more to do with their PBMs than the actual price of the drug,” Patricia Goldsmith, CEO, CancerCare, says. Transparency is vital.
PBMs control patients’ access to therapies at three levels, through price negotiations, pricing tiers and pharmacy management.
When negotiating with drug manufacturers, Goldsmith says, “PBMs exchange a preferred spot on a formulary (the insurer’s or healthcare provider’s list of acceptable drugs) for cash-base rebates.” Unfortunately, 25 percent of the time, those rebates are not passed to insurers, according to the PBGH report.
Then, PBMs use pricing tiers to steer patients and physicians to certain drugs. For example, Kramer says, “Sometimes PBMs put a high-cost brand name drug in a preferred tier and a lower-cost competitor in a less preferred, higher-cost tier.” As the PBGH report elaborates, “(PBMs) are incentivized to include the highest-priced drugs…since both manufacturing rebates, as well as the administrative fees they charge…are calculated as a percentage of the drug’s price.
Finally, by steering patients to certain pharmacies, PBMs coordinate patients’ access to treatments, control patients’ out-of-pocket costs and receive management fees from the pharmacies.
Therefore, Goldsmith says, “As long as formularies are based on profits to middlemen…Americans’ healthcare costs will continue to skyrocket.”
Transparency into drug pricing will help curb costs, as will new payment strategies. What will make the most impact, however, may well be the development of a new reimbursement system designed to handle dramatic, breakthrough drugs. As Kramer says, “We need a better system to identify drugs that offer dramatic improvements in clinical care.”
Story by Freethink
Try burning an iron metal ingot and you’ll have to wait a long time — but grind it into a powder and it will readily burst into flames. That’s how sparklers work: metal dust burning in a beautiful display of light and heat. But could we burn iron for more than fun? Could this simple material become a cheap, clean, carbon-free fuel?
In new experiments — conducted on rockets, in microgravity — Canadian and Dutch researchers are looking at ways of boosting the efficiency of burning iron, with a view to turning this abundant material — the fourth most common in the Earth’s crust, about about 5% of its mass — into an alternative energy source.
Iron as a fuel
Iron is abundantly available and cheap. More importantly, the byproduct of burning iron is rust (iron oxide), a solid material that is easy to collect and recycle. Neither burning iron nor converting its oxide back produces any carbon in the process.
Iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again.
Iron has a high energy density: it requires almost the same volume as gasoline to produce the same amount of energy. However, iron has poor specific energy: it’s a lot heavier than gas to produce the same amount of energy. (Think of picking up a jug of gasoline, and then imagine trying to pick up a similar sized chunk of iron.) Therefore, its weight is prohibitive for many applications. Burning iron to run a car isn’t very practical if the iron fuel weighs as much as the car itself.
In its powdered form, however, iron offers more promise as a high-density energy carrier or storage system. Iron-burning furnaces could provide direct heat for industry, home heating, or to generate electricity.
Plus, iron oxide is potentially renewable by reacting with electricity or hydrogen to become iron again (as long as you’ve got a source of clean electricity or green hydrogen). When there’s excess electricity available from renewables like solar and wind, for example, rust could be converted back into iron powder, and then burned on demand to release that energy again.
However, these methods of recycling rust are very energy intensive and inefficient, currently, so improvements to the efficiency of burning iron itself may be crucial to making such a circular system viable.
The science of discrete burning
Powdered particles have a high surface area to volume ratio, which means it is easier to ignite them. This is true for metals as well.
Under the right circumstances, powdered iron can burn in a manner known as discrete burning. In its most ideal form, the flame completely consumes one particle before the heat radiating from it combusts other particles in its vicinity. By studying this process, researchers can better understand and model how iron combusts, allowing them to design better iron-burning furnaces.
Discrete burning is difficult to achieve on Earth. Perfect discrete burning requires a specific particle density and oxygen concentration. When the particles are too close and compacted, the fire jumps to neighboring particles before fully consuming a particle, resulting in a more chaotic and less controlled burn.
Presently, the rate at which powdered iron particles burn or how they release heat in different conditions is poorly understood. This hinders the development of technologies to efficiently utilize iron as a large-scale fuel.
Burning metal in microgravity
In April, the European Space Agency (ESA) launched a suborbital “sounding” rocket, carrying three experimental setups. As the rocket traced its parabolic trajectory through the atmosphere, the experiments got a few minutes in free fall, simulating microgravity.
One of the experiments on this mission studied how iron powder burns in the absence of gravity.
In microgravity, particles float in a more uniformly distributed cloud. This allows researchers to model the flow of iron particles and how a flame propagates through a cloud of iron particles in different oxygen concentrations.
Existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Insights into how flames propagate through iron powder under different conditions could help design much more efficient iron-burning furnaces.
Clean and carbon-free energy on Earth
Various businesses are looking at ways to incorporate iron fuels into their processes. In particular, it could serve as a cleaner way to supply industrial heat by burning iron to heat water.
For example, Dutch brewery Swinkels Family Brewers, in collaboration with the Eindhoven University of Technology, switched to iron fuel as the heat source to power its brewing process, accounting for 15 million glasses of beer annually. Dutch startup RIFT is running proof-of-concept iron fuel power plants in Helmond and Arnhem.
As researchers continue to improve the efficiency of burning iron, its applicability will extend to other use cases as well. But is the infrastructure in place for this transition?
Often, the transition to new energy sources is slowed by the need to create new infrastructure to utilize them. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with switching from fossil fuels to iron. Since the ideal temperature to burn iron is similar to that for hydrocarbons, existing fossil fuel power plants could potentially be retrofitted to run on iron fuel.
Tom Oxley is building what he calls a “natural highway into the brain” that lets people use their minds to control their phones and computers. The device, called the Stentrode, could improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of people living with spinal cord paralysis, ALS and other neurodegenerative diseases.
Leaps.org talked with Dr. Oxley for today’s podcast. A fascinating thing about the Stentrode is that it works very differently from other “brain computer interfaces” you may be familiar with, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink. Some BCIs are implanted by surgeons directly into a person’s brain, but the Stentrode is much less invasive. Dr. Oxley’s company, Synchron, opts for a “natural” approach, using stents in blood vessels to access the brain. This offers some major advantages to the handful of people who’ve already started to use the Stentrode.
The audio of this episode improves about 10 minutes in. (There was a minor headset issue early on, but everything is audible throughout.) Dr. Oxley’s work creates game-changing opportunities for patients desperate for new options. His take on where we're headed with BCIs is must listening for anyone who cares about the future of health and technology.
In our conversation, Dr. Oxley talks about “Bluetooth brain”; the critical role of AI in the present and future of BCIs; how BCIs compare to voice command technology; regulatory frameworks for revolutionary technologies; specific people with paralysis who’ve been able to regain some independence thanks to the Stentrode; what it means to be a neurointerventionist; how to scale BCIs for more people to use them; the risks of BCIs malfunctioning; organic implants; and how BCIs help us understand the brain, among other topics.
Dr. Oxley received his PhD in neuro engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. He is the founding CEO of Synchron and an associate professor and the head of the vascular bionics laboratory at the University of Melbourne. He’s also a clinical instructor in the Deepartment of Neurosurgery at Mount Sinai Hospital. Dr. Oxley has completed more than 1,600 endovascular neurosurgical procedures on patients, including people with aneurysms and strokes, and has authored over 100 peer reviewed articles.
Synchron website - https://synchron.com/
Assessment of Safety of a Fully Implanted Endovascular Brain-Computer Interface for Severe Paralysis in 4 Patients (paper co-authored by Tom Oxley) - https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/art...
More research related to Synchron's work - https://synchron.com/research
Tom Oxley on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/tomoxl
Tom Oxley on Twitter - https://twitter.com/tomoxl?lang=en
Tom Oxley website - https://tomoxl.com/
Novel brain implant helps paralyzed woman speak using digital avatar - https://engineering.berkeley.edu/news/2023/08/novel-brain-implant-helps-paralyzed-woman-speak-using-a-digital-avatar/
Edward Chang lab - https://changlab.ucsf.edu/
BCIs convert brain activity into text at 62 words per minute - https://med.stanford.edu/neurosurgery/news/2023/he...
Leaps.org: The Mind-Blowing Promise of Neural Implants - https://leaps.org/the-mind-blowing-promise-of-neural-implants/