This is the fifth in a series of posts on how we might reduce the costs of cancer care, based on 10 suggestions offered in a May, 2011 NEJM sounding board. We’re up to point 4: oncologists should replace the routine use of white-cell-stimulating factors with a reduction in the chemotherapy dose in metastatic solid cancers.
In this section, the authors allude to what I think might be a cost-saving advance in oncology practice: why not make available lower doses of white blood cell (WBC) colony stimulating factors?
The issue is this: when people get high doses of chemotherapy, they’re compromised because the bone marrow doesn’t create new WBCs as it should. The risk of infection during chemo used to be so great that, in the 1980s and earlier, it was common for cancer patients to succumb to infection. With the advent of WBC stimulants in the early 1990s, the risks of infection during chemo dropped markedly.
These are complex and expensive drugs. And while I agree with the NEJM authors that chemotherapy is over-used, often, I don’t think it makes sense to cut down on potentially helpful doses or combinations of those drugs just because WBC stimulants are expensive.
Take Neulasta (pegfilgrastim), a long- acting stimulator of neutrophils manufactured by Amgen. This injectible drug costs over $ 2,000 for a single, 6 milligram vial. It’s supposed to be given every 2 weeks, although some oncologists might give it at a lesser frequency, depending on the chemo cycles. There’s only one size dose available for all patients; they’re all billed for the full 6 milligrams.
This is an ideal situation for Amgen, which takes in over $2000 for each 6 milligram vial. It’s far from perfect for patients who, even if there’s no toxicity, pay huge co-pays with each chemo cycle.
You can find some patients’ discussions of this issue at cancer support sites like these. There’s also a public correspondence between Medicare and the State of Wisconsin on the high costs of this drug.
Around 10 years ago, when I was practicing, I wondered why we couldn’t give some patients less than 6 milligrams of Neulasta. This would be useful in at least three situations: for patients who are physically small; for those who receive lower doses of chemo; and for people who are hyper-sensitive, for whom just a tiny bit is enough to raise the white count adequately. A frequent toxicity is bone pain; this is intense in some patients and, in theory, would be less problematic if a lower dose were available. Once, I almost got into administrative trouble for asking a pharmacist to draw up only half of the dose from a vial so that I might give a petite woman only 3 milligrams of this powerful drug.
Since then, nothing’s changed. I looked it up yesterday; there’s still only one dose of Neulasta: 6 milligrams.
So if Neulasta were sold in lower-dose vials, like 1, 2, 3 or 4 milligrams, patients could receive lesser doses, as is often appropriate. The costs of these drugs, when administered properly, might be halved, approximately, without compromising on recommended doses of chemotherapy.
Just my two cents, nothing more –