Breast Cancer and Avastin, the Ongoing Saga

As many are now aware, in November of 2011, the United States FDA withdrew approval for bevacizumab (Avastin) for the treatment of breast cancer. Medicare and the National Comprehensive Cancer Network  (NCCN) are now re-examining their guidelines. In the interim, reimbursement for Avastin is a patchwork of approvals and denials across the country.

Into this mix comes an interesting concept apparently floated by Roche’s European affiliates. Described in a brief press release was the suggestion that Roche might be prepared to attach Avastin reimbursement to its efficacy. That is – Roche would only demand payment from patients and third party payers if the treated patient revealed objective evidence of response. This is an interesting idea!

The concept of conditional reimbursement is extremely intriguing. Contrary to contemporary reimbursement policy, the purveyors of therapy would only receive compensation if they could prove benefit, not mind you, benefit in the broad brush Phase III tiny statistically significant result (e.g. the FDA approval of erlotinib plus gemcitabine in pancreatic cancer for a median survival advantage of 10.6 days!), but instead very real benefit on a patient-by-patient basis.

We use erlotinib plus gemcitabine, as well as Avastin combinations, to great benefit for many of our patients and applaud the availability of these drugs and combinations. But we never, just give them. Were the federal government, major payers or HMOs to be prepared to reimburse novel therapies predicated on their efficacy, we might envisage a meaningful advance in cancer therapeutics.

Today, few small laboratories, start-up companies and early stage biotech firms have the resources to marshal multi-million dollar clinical trials to test new therapies. This may in part be why advances in cancer therapy are moving so slowly forward.  The barriers to entry are insurmountable, causing many good ideas to fall by the wayside for lack of the hundreds of millions of dollars required to achieve FDA approval and Medicare reimbursement. But what if on an individual basis, reimbursement policies reflected the most meaningful of all endpoints – individual patient response and survival. Even the largest pharmaceutical companies are now coming to realize that despite their clout they too are suffering under the guidelines forced upon drug developers in this era of ever increasing regulation.

This is a concept worth pursuing. Let’s see where it goes.