Banking on our fear of death

Pharmaceutical companies have reoriented their businesses over the past several years to focus on discovery of molecules that target narrow markets, usually in oncology or in rare, but serious diseases. It is well known that revenues for ‘mass market’ products for diseases that are highly prevalent and not immediately life-threatening have been declining and few truly breakthrough discoveries have been made to replace revenue drivers that have become generic.

But why the rush into oncology and other small-but-serious markets? I believe that this has to do largely with our attitude towards death. Inevitably, we will all die of something. Before the advent of penicillin, people died of infections. As medical care has improved dramatically in the past 100 years, at least in some parts of the world, we live longer and are more likely to experience diseases which are basically a function of our body breaking down i.e. cancer.

Oncology drugs present an attempt to prevent the inevitable. In some tumour types, enormous advances have been made – breast cancer, for example, can now be regarded more as a chronic disease than as a terminal illness. For many other tumour types, however, scientific progress has been underwhelming. New agents are being trialed and approved that offer three or four more months of progression-free survival or a few months of overall survival vs. the incumbent standard of care. …and regulatory bodies such as the FDA find it difficult to turn those agents down, because they allow patients to live longer. Enormous costs to the healthcare system are perceived as justified, because they allow patients to live longer.

How much value do four extra months have when you are very sick and 80 years old? I don’t know, as I have not yet been in this situation. Who drives decisions to try another therapy, complete with side effects, at that point? Is it the physician, feeling compelled to offer a treatment when one is available? Is it the patient, clinging to life? Or is it the patient’s family, not wanting to let go?

One thing seems certain – no politician in his or her right mind will advocate spending healthcare dollars elsewhere, when there is time to be gained in the battle with death. Can you imagine the headlines? But the societal discourse may be shifting, looking at more humane ways of dealing with end-of-life, and re-evaluating our overall priorities in what kind of healthcare is being offered and funded.