by Naomi Lopez Bauman

A recent study led by the American Cancer Society is cause for optimism. While there are variations between gender, race, ethnicity, and types of cancer, both the overall incidence of cancer and cancer death rates continues to decline.

The success stories of patients surviving what were terminal diagnoses just a few years ago are important, often untold stories in the current drug price discussions that are now taking place in Washington. In a recent report using multiple myeloma as a case study, Goldwater Institute Visiting Fellow Dr. Rafael Fonseca and his co-authors examined the economic, policy, and ethical considerations surrounding drug pricing and patient access.

Cancer remains the second-leading cause of death in the U.S. While effective treatments for some types of cancers remain elusive, multiple myeloma patients like Deb Graff, who was profiled in a recent STAT News article, provide an important example of how medical innovation is benefitting patients:

“She was lucky enough to get multiple myeloma after the 2003 release of a drug called Velcade (bortezomib), one of the first therapies to directly target multiple myeloma. Velcade, plus more than 20 other approvals since then, have transformed multiple myeloma care. For three-quarters of patients, a disease that once brought a three-year life expectancy has become a long-term, chronic illness.

“Now, multiple myeloma is poised for another inflection point.

“There are 89 experimental drugs currently being tested in people, according to Biomedtracker, a research unit of Informa. Some are improvements on existing drugs, others have found new ways to target the cancer cells; a few engage the body’s immune system in the fight.”

In their study, Dr. Fonseca and his co-authors maintain that any successful plan to address pharmaceutical prices—an important goal—must do so in a manner that respects the important role innovation plays in making pharmaceutical advances—which can help extend patents’ lives and boost the quality of that life.

As Dr. Fonseca outlines in his report, innovation has led to decreased hospitalizations, transfusions, and surgery, as well as less time spent away from jobs. And of course, there are more intangible benefits, such as a better quality of life. As Dr. Fonseca said at the time of his report’s release, “You can’t put a price on, say, being able to go to your child’s wedding because a drug or treatment has extended your life.”

Ms. Graf, who has been battling the disease for nine years, not only attended her daughter’s wedding in 2010, but she has since become a grandmother to two granddaughters, ages six and four.

Naomi Lopez Bauman is the director of healthcare policy at the Goldwater Institute.