By Kim Coghill
WASHINGTON - The outcome of the presidential election could dramatically impact the biotechnology industry if it leads to a prescription drug plan full of government price controls that could stifle research and development.
And while the goal of either Gov. George Bush or Vice President Al Gore's prescription plan is to provide for seniors, ironically it is seniors who will suffer if budgets dry up because there are few incentives for biotechnology companies to develop products to treat diseases that affect the elderly.
In a press conference Thursday, the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) presented a report, "Biotechnology's Impact on Diseases of the Elderly: A White Paper," which describes the costs of eight age-related illnesses in human and economic terms. The illnesses are Alzheimer's disease, cancer (breast, colorectal, lung and prostate), chronic renal failure, coronary heart disease (angina and acute myocardial infarction), diabetes mellitus, osteoporosis, Parkinson's disease and stroke.
Biotechnology, the study demonstrates, offers the best hope for improving seniors' health and reducing health care costs because it uncovers the molecular causes of disease and develops diagnostics that help prevent illnesses and therapies that treat the causes, not just symptoms.
"This report demonstrates that there are products on the market being sold that are helping people live longer and healthier, and survive disease and they are doing it in a cost-effective manner," William Haseltine, chairman and CEO of Rockville, Md.-based Human Genome Sciences Inc., said during the press conference. "There is a general consensus that we in this country should support biomed research and there is a bipartisan effort which is in the process of doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health. This is something that the American people don't understand - the relationship between doubling the NIH budget and better health care."
The BIO study, conducted by Parexel International Medical Marketing Services Inc., highlights 20 marketed drugs and 57 of the more than 350 drugs and vaccines in late-stage clinical trials. All these biotech medicines reduce the need for expensive hospitalization and nursing home care and are far less invasive than most traditional therapies, according to the report.
"We are trying to control health costs and protect science, and they are not mutually exclusive, although some folks would have you believe they are," said Rep. Bob Ehrlich (R-Md.).
Ehrlich and Rep. Cal Dooley (D-Calif.) are co-chairs of the bipartisan Biotechnology Caucus, which was formed to educate members of Congress about the safety and potential of biotechnology to enhance agricultural and pharmaceutical products.
"This stuff isn't cheap and getting the American public to understand that and how expensive this research is, is not an easy task," Ehrlich said.
For example, according to the report, Epogen, a protein drug used to treat anemia associated with chronic renal failure and cancer chemotherapy, reduces the need for blood transfusions to replenish red blood cells, resulting in a 23 percent per-patient cost savings. Leukine and Neupogen, protein drugs used to restore white blood cells destroyed by cancer chemotherapy, reduce the need for bone marrow transplants, saving tens of thousands of dollars per patient. Another drug, the phosphate binder RenaGel for chronic renal failure, saves $1,500 per patient by reducing hospitalizations.
Dooley added, "[The prescription drug debate] has focused on how to provide the prescription drug benefit, how do we pay for it, but we really haven't focused in terms of the advances in biotechnology and the development of new pharmaceuticals."
He said adequate consideration is not being given to the benefits of drugs and their ability to reduce outpatient and inpatient costs. "The cost of drugs might be increasing, but without consideration in terms of improving quality of life and enhancing productivity, you cannot do an appropriate evaluation of the benefits of these new drugs," Dooley said. n