President Biden this week gave a speech promoting his Cancer Moonshot initiative and a new government health agency that he says will drive treatment breakthroughs. As usual, he gave no credit to drug makers that are producing game-changing treatments such as Amgen’s Lumakras for lung cancer.
Lung cancer kills more Americans than any other cancer. The five-year survival rate is a mere 18.6% and 5% for advanced forms. Treatments targeting particular protein or gene mutations have improved survival odds for breast, melanoma and some other cancers. But cancers driven by a mutation in the KRAS gene have eluded these breakthroughs, and lung cancer is one of them.
The KRAS gene regulates cell growth and division, and mutations are found in many tumors, including 32% of lung and 90% of pancreatic cancers. Yet the KRAS protein has long been considered “undruggable” because its small size and smooth surface are difficult for drug molecules to block. Amgen’s Lumakras pill proves it can be done.
The Food and Drug Administration last May approved Lumakras under its accelerated approval pathway for patients with advanced non-small lung cancer bearing a particular KRAS gene mutation. Results from early trials showed promise and this week were borne out by a late-stage trial that showed more than twice as many patients responded to the drug than they did to chemotherapy.
A quarter of patients receiving Lumakras lived at least a year without their cancer getting worse compared to 10% who received chemotherapy. Survival benefits were hard to assess since a third of the chemotherapy patients received Lumakras after their disease progressed. Amgen also announced results from a separate small trial this week showing Lumakras may help patients with metastatic colorectal cancer.
The drug is by no means a cure, but progress occurs at the margin and some patients who had what amounted to a death sentence now have hope to live. Lumakras is also much less brutal than chemotherapy.
Yet the drug might not have been developed had the Medicare take-it-or-leave-it negotiations that Democrats recently enacted been in effect earlier. Their price controls will penalize in particular small-molecule drugs like Lumakras that have the potential to help large numbers of patients. Within six years, Lumakras could be targeted by bureaucrats for price controls and the payoff on Amgen’s investment could vanish.
Mr. Biden’s price-control policy contradicts his desire to promote faster cancer cures. The damage will come in slower therapies and patients who might have been saved. g
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