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Study says MS drugs from Biogen, Bayer too expensive in US

Treatments’ price, quality of life gains more in line in UK

By Meg Tirrell
Bloomberg News / July 21, 2011

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Biogen Idec Inc. and Bayer AG would have to cut the price of their multiple sclerosis drugs by at least two-thirds in the United States to make them cost effective at boosting quality of life, a study found.

Disease-modifying drugs for multiple sclerosis like Avonex and Tysabri, from Weston-based Biogen Idec, and Betaseron, sold by Leverkusen, Germany-based Bayer, are at least eight times costlier than what researchers consider reasonable when putting a price on quality-of-life improvement, according to the study published yesterday in the journal Neurology. The study also found that prescribing the medicines in earlier stages of multiple sclerosis improved cost effectiveness.

Multiple sclerosis affects about 400,000 people in the United States and 2.1 million worldwide, according to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. The chronic disease attacks the central nervous system and can cause paralysis, numbness in limbs, and vision loss. The disease-modifying drugs, which delay progression and reduce relapse of multiple sclerosis, can cost about $34,000 a year in the United States, compared with about $12,920 in the United Kingdom, the study said.

“Simply reducing the price of these drugs to a level for what they’re sold in the UK and Europe will bring the number to a much more acceptable level,’’ said Katia Noyes, lead author of the study and chief of the Division of Health Policy and Outcomes Research at the University of Rochester School of Medicine in New York.

Researchers generally accept $100,000 per quality-adjusted life year, or QALY, as a reasonable threshold, Noyes said. The metric incorporates the impact of treatment on duration and quality of life. For the multiple sclerosis drugs examined in the study, the measure exceeded $800,000 per QALY.

In addition to Biogen Idec and Bayer’s medicines, the researchers looked at Copaxone, which is sold by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd., and Rebif, from Merck KGaA.

The study also found prescribing medicines at earlier stages of the disease improved their cost effectiveness. For Biogen Idec’s Avonex, the cost per QALY when starting the drug at stage 2 of the disease, when most patients start to show symptoms, falls to about $730,000 compared with $898,000 for stage 3, Noyes said.

Avonex’s “pricing is consistent with the real world value it delivers to patients with MS,’’ Jeff Boyle, a spokesman for Biogen Idec, wrote in an e-mailed statement yesterday. “Avonex remains the least expensive option for those looking to slow the progression of their MS.’’

Biogen Idec has a “significant commitment’’ to patient access, he wrote. “If there is a patient in need, we will find a way to help.’’

Teva and Bayer didn’t immediately respond to calls and e-mail messages seeking comment.