Center Professor Len Fleck, PhD, was a keynote speaker at the Great Lakes Biorepository Research Network (GLBRN) Annual Scientific Meeting, held at Beaumont Hospital-Royal Oak Campus on November 3. The title of Dr. Fleck’s presentation was “Precision Medicine, Ethical Ambiguity,” summarized below.
What is precision medicine? A short answer would be getting beyond “one size fits all” drug therapy, with all the side effects and misfits that implies (e.g. traditional chemotherapy). Instead, medicine would stratify patients with a specific disease, such as some cancer, into subgroups so that therapy could be tailored to the specific genetic features of their cancer. The overall goal is to maximize the beneficial effects of an available therapy for a specific patient, minimize debilitating or dangerous side effects, and save money for the health care system. How could there be ethical problems with goals such as that?
The most significant problem relates to health care justice, the fair distribution of access to the fruits of precision medicine. The basic problem is that these targeted cancer therapies are extraordinarily expensive. More than 70 of these cancer drugs have been approved by the FDA since 2000.
- Cost: $70,000–$200,000+ for a course of treatment.
- One form of combination therapy is priced at $86,000 per month.
- Kymriah for Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia (ALL) is priced at $475,000 for a one-time treatment.
- None of these drugs is curative.
- Median gains in life expectancy for patients is measurable in weeks or months for the most part.
- Several hundred more such drugs are in the pipeline.
- Fojo and Grady have pointed out that these drugs yield incremental cost-effectiveness ratios (ICERs) of several hundred thousand dollars to more than a million dollars per Quality-Adjusted Life Year (QALY).
Imatinib (Gleevec) was approved in 2001 for the treatment of Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML). It is extraordinarily effective for the 70% of these patients who have survived at least ten years beyond diagnosis. It was priced at $36,000 per year in 2001, and must be taken indefinitely. In 2016 imatinib was priced at $146,000, even though nothing at all changed with regard to the drug itself. Another drug, Iclusig, was priced at $120,000 for a year in 2015. In 2016 the price was raised to $200,000. We will pass over in stunned silence at the obvious ethical issues here.
As a society that seeks to be just and caring in meeting health care needs we struggle to identify the ethical norms that should govern access to these targeted cancer therapies. Keep in mind that these drugs are for metastatic cancer, almost always a terminal diagnosis. Consequently, we often appeal to inchoate (and problematic) ethical intuitions. We appeal to the “rule of rescue,” “last chance therapies,” “the pricelessness of human life,” and the “visibility of desperate patients,” all of which seem to generate an ethical obligation to fund access to these targeted therapies. Unfortunately, that obligation runs out of ethical steam once insurance runs out. In health care, our sense of obligation has evolved to select for money.
Some sad conclusions: (1) No moral theories or “compelling” moral arguments are going to yield clearly satisfactory ethical resolution to these allocation/ priority-setting challenges. Not just cancer counts (ethically speaking). (2) Ultimately, given limited resources (money) for meeting unlimited health care needs we will have to rely upon fair and legitimate processes of rational democratic deliberation constrained by relevant clinical evidence and broadly endorsed considered judgments of health care justice. (3) For the foreseeable future, precision medicine will remain infected with clinical uncertainty, ethical ambiguity, disingenuous politicking, and byzantine economic accounting (not to mention pharmaceutical philandering).