BALTIMORE, March 15 (UPI) -- Switching to a generic form of the cancer drug Gleevac could save patients about $100,000 over five years, translating to more than $9 million in savings for an insurer with 100 patients being treated with the drug, say researchers at Johns Hopkins University.
If Canada is any indication, the expiration of Novartis Pharmaceuticals' patent on Gleevac, called imatinib, could result in a nearly 90 percent drop in price when generic forms of the drug hit the market.
Gleevac, a tyrosine kinase inhibitor, is credited with making chronic myeloid leukemia treatable, however survival is limited to five years without relapse. During that time, patients often rotate between Gleevac and two other similar drugs, dasatinib and nilotinib, based on side effects or waning efficacy.
All three drugs have similar survival rates, but are expensive -- costing between $60,000 and $80,000 per year -- making a potential price drop a big deal for patients, doctors and insurers.
"When patent protection is lost, the prices are set closer to the true cost of the drug," Dr. William Padula, an assistant professor of health and policy management at Johns Hopkins, said in a press release. "They're making 'General Motors' profits as opposed to Pharma profits and that savings can be shared with the consumer, but only if doctors and insurers work together to make sure patients are being prescribed the more cost-effective medication."
For the study, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, researchers constructed mathematical models to measure the five-year effectiveness of imatinib-first drug selection by doctors, comparing it to "physician's choice" of drug. The researchers based treatment efficacy on estimates from clinical trials of the drug.
Price estimates are based an expected brand-to-generic drop in price of between 70 percent and 90 percent, including Canadian prices for imatinib that are between 18 and 26 percent of Gleevac's price.
The researchers say if a patient was started on imatinib first, instead of Gleevac, and stayed on it for five years, the patient would save about $100,000. The expected drop would mean Gleevac's $60,000 per year price would become $6,000 per year with the generic version. If an insurer had 100 patients using the drug, its savings would be just over $9 million over five years.
"There is minimal risk to starting all patients on imatinib first," Padula said. "If the patient can't tolerate the medication or it seems to be ineffective in that patient, then we can switch the patient to a more expensive drug. Insurance companies have the ability to dictate which drugs physicians prescribe first, and they regularly do. Doing so here would mean very little risk to health and a lot of cost savings."