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High Price

The public is increasingly concerned about the high price tags of pharmaceuticals, and David Blumenthal, president of the national health-care philanthropy the Commonwealth Fund, writes at the Wall Street Journal that personalized medicines are contributing to those high costs.

For instance, he notes that Vertex Pharmaceuticals' Kalydeco, which targets a genetic variant linked to cystic fibrosis — potentially helping about 2,000 of the 30,000 cystic fibrosis patients in the US — costs more than $300,000 a year.

"The trend toward splitting what used to be a single disease into many — each with its own targeted treatment — will likely extend soon to more common illnesses such as hypertension, Alzheimer's, and diabetes," Blumenthal says. And because those patient populations will be smaller, he adds the to recoup costs, "the per-patient prices of the new agents will almost certainly be higher than they would be if the same drug could be sold to hundreds of thousands or millions of patients."

But, Blumenthal says there are a few strategies that could be implemented to keep the price tags of targeted therapies down. For instance, he says drug developers could "search for the scientific equivalent of mass customization: shared drug-development techniques that support the production of many targeted treatments."

He adds that greater transparency from the drug industry about their R&D costs would help ensure that they aren't overcharging, but also notes that such treatments could be cost-effective if they prevent other medical expenses.

"As we are divided into smaller and smaller medical groups, our common bonds will be tested," Blumenthal writes. "How much are we willing to pay collectively for a very effective treatment that benefits just a few [of] us?"