Spark Therapeutics recently launched a pioneering new drug that can improve the vision of patients with a rare hereditary form of vision loss. That's not the only thing that is pioneering about this drug, called Luxturna. Its price is, too. Spark announced this week that treatment will cost $850,000 a patient. "We believe that price reflects the type of life-altering value we're seeing with Luxturna in clinical trials and will allow us to build on revolutionary science," Spark Chief Executive Jeff Marrazzo told The Wall Street Journal.
The company reportedly had considered setting the price even higher, at $1 million.
Cue the usual howls from politicians and activists who rail against the high price of modern drugs and other treatments.
No doubt hoping to mute that chorus of critics, Spark says it will offer alternative payment arrangements to health insurers, including partial refunds if the drug doesn't work as advertised. The market of potential patients isn't huge: An estimated 1,000 to 2,000 Americans stand to benef t from this treatment, the company says.
But imagine you are one of those patients today. Imagine what Luxturna could mean to your life.
We're not here to celebrate nosebleed prices. But we do celebrate the genius that drives the development of such powerhouse drugs. And the free markets that allow companies to set prices so they reap profits from blockbuster drugs. Today's profits, of course, become the seed money for tomorrow's research on ... more new, perhaps miraculous, drugs.
The trouble with such medical miracles: They're not cheap. They never will be.
Developing drugs takes immense investments in time and money. A 2014 report from Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development pegged the average cost of developing a new drug at $2.6 billion.
In recent years, U.S. spending on prescription drugs has rocketed. One reason: Drug companies continue to launch novel medicines that bring breakthrough therapies to treat an array of illnesses, from multiple sclerosis to several forms of cancer. Luxturna shares a dubious distinction with some of those drugs: Its price tag approaches $1 million.
But remember, prescription drug makers face not only the failure of new products, but also fierce competition. They have a limited time to sell new products before lower-cost generic versions are allowed.
In 2016, President Barack Obama named Vice President Joe Biden to command an American "moon shot" to cure cancer. Obama didn't say how long it would take or how much it would cost. Some of the latest prescription drug weapons in that war now reach similar stratospheric prices as Luxturna.
But who wants to tell the drug companies to stop because the cost of a cure is too high?
The price of drugs is fair game for debate, in Congress, among insurers, and over the kitchen table of every American.
What's fair? What's gouging? We don't know. Nor do politicians. Officials and activists may exert pressure to drive better bargains. But as long as the market largely decides prices, researchers will continue to find these medical miracles. The next one may vastly improve life for several thousand people. Or several million.