Gene Therapy Price: Commercial Viability And Moral Dilemma

On May 24, 2019, Novartis announced the US-FDA approval of ‘the first and only gene therapy’ – Zolgensma, for a type of Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), a lifesaving treatment for infants of less than 2 years of age. This unique drug halts disease progression with a single, one-time intravenous (IV) infusion.

On value offerings of Zolgensma,the Novartis CEO said: “The approval of Zolgensma is a testament to the transformational impact gene therapies can have in reimagining the treatment of life-threatening genetic diseases like spinal muscular atrophy. We believe Zolgensma could create a lifetime of possibilities for the children and families impacted by this devastating condition.”

Unquestionably, this development in medical science is indeed commendable. But, the jaw-dropping price tag – USD 2.125 millionattached to this product, has brought back gene therapy at the center stage of the incensed debate on access and affordability of such treatment for a vast majority of the population, across the world. Besides, two important issues related to gene therapy need to be effectively resolved – long-term commercial viability and the ‘moral dilemma’ that its market launch would prompt. And both are interconnected and also associated with the pricing rationale of such therapies.

I am terming  the second factor as a ‘moral dilemma’ rather than an ‘ethical dilemma’ because, “ethics is a more individual assessment of values as relatively good or bad, while morality is a more intersubjective community assessment of what is good, right or just for all.”In this article, I shall deliberate on these two interrelated issues. But, before delving into it, let me recapitulate in simple terms, what exactly is ‘Gene Therapy.’

What exactly is ‘Gene Therapy?’

According to US-FDA, human gene therapy seeks to modify or manipulate the expression of a gene or to alter the biological properties of living cells for therapeutic use.

Gene therapy is a technique that modifies a person’s genes to treat or cure disease. Gene therapies can work by several mechanisms:

  • Replacing a disease-causing gene with a healthy copy of the gene
  • Inactivating a disease-causing gene that is not functioning properly
  • Introducing a new or modified gene into the body to help treat a disease

Gene therapy products are now being studied to treat diseases including cancer, genetic diseases, and also infectious diseases.

Gene therapy price has been going higher than highest, thus far:

‘At USD 2.1 million, newly approved Novartis gene therapy will be world’s most expensive drug,’ says another report of May 24, 2019.It is noteworthy that Zolgensma price has been kept higher than the highest priced drug before this product came. If his trend continues, the future gene therapy cost is likely to exceed even Zolgensma price, the implication of which for patients who will need such treatment to save life or manage the disease, will be huge.

Intriguingly, the high treatment cost for a rare ailment like, SMA - a degenerative disorder that usually kills an infant within two years, is not limited to just gene therapy.  According to the April 04, 2019 article titled, ‘Biogen SMA drug price, Novartis estimates for its treatment far too high – U.S. group’ of Reuters, the price of another drug for SMA – Biogen’s Spinraza, which is not a gene therapy, is also very high. Its list price is USD 750,000 for the initial year and USD 375,000 annually. As reported, ‘Spinraza, an important growth driver for Biogen, took in USD 1.7 billion in 2018 sales.’

What should have been the actual prices of these drugs?

Interestingly, to determine the value of these drugs, the nonprofit Institute for Clinical and Economic Review (ICER) ‘used a measure known as “quality-adjusted life year” (QALY), in which each year of healthy or near-healthy life resulting from the treatment is worth USD 100,000 to USD 150,000.

Using the QALY benchmark, ICER, reportedly, said Spinraza should cost between USD 72,000 and USD 130,000 for the first year of treatment, and cost USD 36,000 to USD 65,000 per year after that, for infants not yet showing symptoms of the disease.

Further, with an alternative benchmark, known as life-year gained (LYG) based on the additional number of years a person lives due to a treatment, Spinraza is, reportedly, worth USD 83,000 to USD 145,000 in year one, and USD 41,000 to USD 72,000 annually thereafter, as ICER determined.

Zolgensma, on the other hand, would, reportedly, be worth USD 310,000 to USD 900,000 for Type 1 SMA patients based on the QALY assessment, and USD 710,000 to USD 1.5 million using the LYG calculation, ICER said.

Notwithstanding, whether one takes the QALY assessment or LYG based price of Zolgensma and Spinraza, the treatment cost of rare diseases, such as SMA for infants, is beyond the affordability of most people – whenever these drugs become the only choice to save lives. Thus, the question comes: Is gene therapy commercially viable or sustainable?

Is gene therapy commercially sustainable?

Undoubtedly, the development of gene therapy signifies yet another milestone in medical science to save lives, which is highly commendable. Nevertheless, the question arises, who will be able to afford this treatment? Thus, is development of gene therapy commercially viable and could be a money churner for a company on a long-term basis? There doesn’t appear to be a clear answer to these questions, just as yet. There are several reasons for this apprehension. But, I am citing below just two examples – related to their humongous treatment cost.

According to the article, published in the Scientific American, in the past five years, two gene therapy drugs have been approved in Europe and one in the United States. The name of this article is ‘Gene Therapy Is Now Available, but Who Will Pay for It?’ Interestingly, only three patients have so far been treated commercially with gene therapy, in Europe.

UniQure’s Glybera, used for a very rare blood disorder, costing around USD 1 million per patient, has been used just once since approval in 2012. However, in 2017, due to commercial reason UniQure decided to withdraw Glybera from the market. Similarly, Strimvelisof Orchard Therapeutics – used for severe Combined Immunodeficiency, costing USD 700,000, ‘has seen two sales since its approval in May 2016, with two more patients due to be treated later this year.’ Interestingly, these apprehensions have not deterred many companies. The ball keeps rolling.

But the ball keeps rolling:

That the ball keeps rolling, and at a faster pace, is evident from what US-FDA envisages in this field. According to US-FDA, by 2025, they are likely to approve 10 to 20 cell and gene therapy products a year. This is based on an assessment of the current pipeline and the clinical success rates of these products.

Importantly, despite apprehension of many, even some of the top pharma players, are fast moving into this space – based on their own assessment of the market. But, to move meaningfully in this direction, there are many several critical success factors, most of which are quite challenging and cost-intensive. A few of these, for example, are – a right collaborative model, ability to develop a scalable manufacturing process and overcoming various technical and regulatory challenges on the way. Interested pharma players, apparently, have realized these needs.

Big Pharma players joining ‘Gene Therapy’ bandwagon:

Big Pharma players, such as, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson (J&J) have started moving into this space. Let me illustrate the point with just a couple of examples.

On March 20, 2019, Pfizer announced: ‘Pfizer has acquired a 15 percent equity interest in Vivet Therapeutics and secured an exclusive option to acquire all outstanding shares.’ Both the companies will collaborate on the development of Vivet’s proprietary treatment for Wilson disease – a rare and progressive genetic disorder, if remains untreated may cause liver (hepatic) disease, central nervous system dysfunction, and death.

Just before this, on January 31, 2019, Janssen Pharmaceutical of Johnson & Johnson (J&J) announced a worldwide collaboration and license agreement with MeiraGTx Holdings plc – a clinical-stage gene therapy company, to develop, manufacture and commercialize its clinical stage inherited retinal disease portfolio, including leading product candidates for achromatopsia. Even prior to this, on January 05, 2018, J&J had announced that the company has established an exclusive research collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania’s ‘Gene Therapy Program’ for fighting Alzheimer’s disease with gene therapy. There are several such instances of gene therapy collaboration for Big Pharma.

With a slightly different collaborative model for gene therapy, on April 12, 2018, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) signed a strategic agreement to transfer rare disease gene therapy portfolio to Orchard Therapeutics, taking a 19.9 percent stake in the company and a seat on the board. Simultaneously, this agreement strengthens Orchard’s position as a global leader in gene therapy for rare diseases.

What could be the moral dilemma in gene therapy pricing?

The dilemma with gene therapy is that they are frightfully expensive, but at the same time is ‘life-transforming’ for many, across the socioeconomic spectrum. This could be another ‘moral dilemma,’ as such exorbitant, if not seemingly ‘vulgar pricing’, as it were, would raise many questions on the company’s own principles regarding right and wrongin saving lives of patients with its gene therapy.

The reason for this moral dilemma in, especially gene therapy pricing is aptly elucidated in an article titled, ‘How to pay for gene therapies in developing nations,’ published in  Evaluate Vantage on March 22, 2019. Admitting that discrepancies in healthcare between rich and poor nations are nothing new, the article also raises a flag, indicating: ‘The potentially curative nature of many gene therapies heightens the moral conundrum that companies will face if and when these projects get to market.

Acknowledging that gene therapies are hot right now, with their developers taking aim at everything from hemophilia to rare eye diseases prevalent in rich nations,the author raises a pertinent question: ‘With rich countries like the US finding it hard to fund gene therapies, it is worth asking whether these projects will ever reach patients in developing countries. And if they do how will companies cope?’

Intriguingly, to create a larger market some are also targeting disorders, largely seen in poorer areas, such as sickle cell disease that could prove valuable also in the developing world. Expectedly, the pressure will mount from many corners to provide gene therapy at an affordable price. Big pharma players are likely to face this strong head wind, adding further fuel to fire of the moral dilemma of gene therapy pricing, especially for the developing world. As on date, no one knows what percentage of people in the developing world will have access to gene therapy. Even Novartis, reportedly, does not seem to have any plan to make its product available in the developing nations.

Conclusion:

Despite what has happened so far, as described above, looking around, we find a steady flow of gene therapy, some even promise remedial treatment outcomes. Big pharma companies, as well, have commenced a long-haul journey in this direction, with big stake investments.

Regarding, not achieving a huge commercial success with gene therapy, so far, one point is common for all, these are for the treatment of very rare diseases. Probably, because of this reason, some companies, having taken a cue from it, are moving away from ultra-rare diseases. Illustratively, GSK is still looking to use gene therapy in a collaborative platform, to develop treatments for more common diseases, including cancer and beta-thalassemia – another inherited blood disorder – as the above Scientific American article reported.

That said, the point to ponder now, if the effort to come out with a remedial gene therapy for these indications fructifies, would it ensure a long-term commercial viability, alongside giving rise to a moral dilemma on the rationale for gene therapy pricing? This seems to be akin to a ‘chicken and egg’ situation. It will be interesting to witness how it pans out, as we move on.

By: Tapan J. Ray   

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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