Blood cancers

Oncology drugs have become the new industry blockbusters


High cost oncology drugs have become the pharmaceutical industry’s new blockbusters, accounting for more than a quarter of companies’ revenue despite being for relatively niche indications.

Over the last decade the annual revenue generated from cancer drugs by the top 10 pharma companies has increased by 70%, according to a review published in Cancer journal.

Over the same period, revenue from non-cancer drugs decreased by 18%, reported the study authors led by Dr Christopher Booth, of the Queen’s University Cancer Research Institute, Ontario, Canada.

The US$40 billion increase in revenue from cancer drugs, from US$55.8 billion to US$95.1 billion, between 2010 and 2019, was predominantly based on new precision oncology drugs, the report authors said.

In contrast, the decline in revenue from non-cancer drugs, from US$342.2 billion to US$281.5 billion, likely reflected the loss of patents on previous widely prescribed blockbuster drugs such acid suppressants, lipid lowering drugs and antihypertensives.

The authors noted that the portion of industry revenue generated from oncology drugs increased substantially over the decade, from 14% in 2010 to 25% in 2019. Since this was for a group of drugs that were prescribed for a relatively small populations, “the financial impact of the decrease in breadth could only be offset by rising drug prices,” they wrote.

They argued that the rising cost of cancer drugs could not be explained by increases in R&D investment, since companies spent US$56 billion more on stock buybacks and dividends than they did on R&D.

From a patient perspective it was not clear whether the increase in spending on cancer drugs had been a cost effective in improving outcomes, they said.

While there had been an average annual  decline of 1.7% in cancer- related mortality over the past decade, this was largely driven by lung cancer mortality that may primarily reflect changes in smoking habits.

“Although there have been a handful of new cancer medicines that have radically changed outcomes for patients, data from US, European and Canadian health systems suggest that, on average, the benefits are modest,” they said

There was little data on the longitudinal impact of cancer drug development on population mortality rates so it was not possible to make conclusions about whether the increase in industry revenue was justified by net societal benefit, they added.

“We hope that the abundance of new cancer drugs have improved patient-  and population- level outcomes  over the past decade; however, there is surprisingly little data to support this notion,” they concluded.

The companies covered in the report are AbbVie, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, GSK, J&J, Merck, Novartis, Pfizer, Roche and Sanofi.

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