Health Inc.

Pricey Provenge Raises Questions And Hopes For Cancer Treatment

Consider the cost of a new option for treating advanced prostate cancer, before you get carried away with enthusiasm.

Provenge, an immune-system booster just approved by the Food and Drug Administration, will run $93,000.

What do patients get for the money? On average, 4.1 more months of life, says the Food and Drug Administration.

Every minute of life is precious, and men with advanced prostate cancer have few treatment options. But is the modest benefit in survival worth the expense? We'll find out soon as doctors, insurers and patients start making choices.

"There will be a large demand for this. Patients don't want chemotherapy," Mount Sinai School of Medicine urologist Simon Hall told Forbes. But Provenge is not a cure, he cautioned. "You are going to live longer, but eventually the cancer will progress."

Even modest demand could overwhelm the initial supply. In the first year, Dendreon, maker of Provenge, says it will only be able to provide enough of the stuff to treat about 2,000 patients, at a back-of-the-envelope cost of $186 million. Still, within a few years some analysts figure annual sales could top $1 billion.

Regardless of how Provenge fares in the market, the fact is FDA has approved the first cancer treatment that mobilizes a patient's immune system to hold cancer in check. For that reason, Provenge gets billed as a vaccine, but it's not a vaccine in the conventional sense of preventing a disease.

Rather, Provenge primes certain white blood cells from a patient's blood to home in on prostate cancer tumors. The treatment is given in three sessions, about two weeks apart. In studies, side effects generally weren't too bad, especially compared with conventional cancer drugs. Common problems included chills, fatigue and fever.

The concept of using a patient's own white cells to fight cancer is getting lots of attention, and Dendreon's lasting contribution may be in blazing a path for others to follow. After all, getting the FDA to approves a completely new approach — especially after years of questions and delays — isn't nothing.

Other companies working on cancer treatments that rely on changing a patient's immune system include Oncothyreon, Germany's Merck KGaA and GlaxoSmithKline.

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